Published 24th November 2015
The rapid growth of Internet technology has not only offered an effective platform for communication, but also brought convenience and access to information to many people around the world, but it has also been utilized as a channel for some criminals to engage in illegal activities. In previous TRAFFIC research, a large amount of endangered species products were observed in domestic e-commerce and antique/collectable websites in China. As a result of stricter enforcement and management by the government authorities and concerned websites, TRAFFIC identified that traders of illegal wildlife products are increasingly shifting from websites to social media networks. These social media networks offer higher privacy and, thus, represent challenges for enforcement and monitoring.
Guan Jing, Xu Ling
“WeChat” is a free instant messaging, social networking and content-sharing application for smart devices which was launched by Tencent in early 2011. As China’s, and even Asia’s, most popular social media platform, WeChat has now become a major commercial trading platform. It is also used by illegal traders to advertise and sell ivory and other endangered species products. WeChat users can make use of the public platform, Friends Circle/Moments, for news sharing/forwarding and other functions to post or publish text, pictures or videos of various products, which might include illicit goods such as endangered species and their products. Until recently, the use of social media platforms for illegal sales of endangered species products has not been well controlled or acted upon through adequate law enforcement efforts or effective enforcement tools.
Through online trade monitoring of endangered species, TRAFFIC has found that more and more traders are shifting their website selling platforms to WeChat in order to take advantage of higher levels of privacy. In order to get a better understanding of the characteristics of illegal trade in endangered species on WeChat, and to support Tencent and relevant law enforcement agencies to combat wildlife trade crime effectively, TRAFFIC has investigated 58 illegal ivory traders’ WeChat accounts by monitoring their Friends Circle/Moments three times a week from May to July 2015. In this context, TRAFFIC has been using ivory trade as a case study for trade of endangered species products. The text of advertisements, pictures and videos have been assessed for information related to illegal ivory trade through WeChat and recorded in detail. This allowed a comprehensive analysis of the processes and key features of illegal ivory trade using WeChat platforms.
The key research results from this initiative are as follows:
1. From May to July 2015, 58 identified WeChat accounts were assessed on 47 occasions, and a total of 10,650 advertisements of illegal ivory trade, consisting of 57,479 pictures and 580 videos, have been recorded. The average number of records per survey has been 227 advertisements of illegal ivory trade, containing 1,223 pictures and 12 videos. It is, however, very challenging to reliably quantify the total number of individual ivory pieces on WeChat, because traders offer individual pieces repeatedly and on various pictures and videos, at the same time – pictures might be swiftly deleted or removed (without confirmation of actual transaction). Regardless of total amounts, it can be concluded that trade levels are significant.
2. During the fifth week of the survey, the volume of illegal ivory advertisements dropped markedly by about 45% due to law enforcement efforts against illegal trade in ivory and other endangered species products by enforcement agencies and Tencent. As a result, many WeChat dealers have stated that “the wind is too strong” recently (in reference to the strict policy of the WeChat management). However, during the 13th week, the volume of illegal ivory advertisements again increased significantly, and some traders even started to establish and publish “backup accounts” to avoid the effects of blocking or restricting business transactions on current accounts.
3. According to the commodity types and the frequency of their appearance in advertisements, ivory traders can be classified into four categories: A. Ivory franchise (13.8%); B. Ivory and other endangered species products franchise (41.4%); C. Collectables including ivory (20.7%); D. Other business, including ivory (24.1%).
4. Illegal trade in ivory products through WeChat includes: A. Raw Ivory tusks or pieces; B. Semi-worked ivory; C. Worked ivory. Trade in worked ivory comprises about 90% of the monitored market. However, this does not represent the actual trade quantity because many ivory tusks are possibly shown in a single photo or video. Generally, only worked ivory has been observed for sale in physical or online (website) markets during TRAFFIC’s previous surveys, but through WeChat channels, raw or semi-worked ivory is also available.
5. The price of ivory varies by type of ivory being sold as follows: CNY9.1±2.2 per gram for raw ivory tusks or pieces; CNY7.4±3.4 per gram for semi-worked ivory; CNY32.2±10.0 per gram for worked ivory without carving (generally consisting high-quality ivory material); and CNY29.1±7.9 per gram for worked ivory with carving (generally consisting of lower quality material and carving – e.g. 3D engraving technology). For worked ivory, prices on WeChat were about 25% lower than those for similar items found for sale in illegal physical markets in China.
6. The main trading procedure can be outlined as follows: Adding ‘Friends’ -> Advertising -> Price negotiation -> Transfer/payment-> Delivery. Traders post ivory photos or videos in the Moments section of their accounts and other channels on WeChat, in order to avoid Tencent’s inspection; products are generally labelled with price without negotiation; traders accept payment via WeChat’s wallet or bank transfer; and in the end, the ivory is delivered through courier companies.
7. The ivory transaction chain on WeChat consists of six steps: raw ivory trading, preliminary processed, detailed or finished processing, wholesale/retail, agents and end-market.
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