Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Social media and trade of rare plants

Orchids make up 70% of species listed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and some can sell on the black market for large five-digit sums, thus providing the motivation for traders to bypass the rules aimed at preventing species from becoming extinct. Illegal traders are keen to find new ways to advertise and sell their plants on the black market, with social media emerging as the new way to do so.

New research found wild orchids were being traded from all over the world, and recorded trade in rare and threatened species including one assessed as Critically Endangered. At least two others are listed as protected in the country from which they were being sold. Although total numbers of trade posts are relatively small, the high proportion of wild collected orchids for sale supports calls for better monitoring of social media for trade in wild collected plants and other traded wildlife.

If you think it is difficult to find such sites with obviously at partially illegal trade or people that are willing to buy endangered species, well how about this little quote I found by just entering the words Paphiopedilum kolopakingii and Price into Google: If these were more widely available and cost not so much as an arm and a leg, I wouldn’t hesitate to get one in a wink. What this person neglects to state is the fact that this species (see image) has been assessed as critically endangered by the IUCN and I bet most of the ones in the trade are sourced from the wild.

A previous study by some of the authors of this publication shows that orchid hobbyists who buy on the internet have a preference for rare species. The sale of wild orchids on social media, if left unchecked, is likely to contribute to pressure on vulnerable wild populations.

In addition to research, our findings highlight the potential benefit that monitoring these websites could have for law-enforcement and conservation.  Previous monitoring of online trade resulted in eBay banning the sale of ivory products.  Even if this ban has not been completely successful, it demonstrates that monitoring can provide information to underpin action.  In addition to bans, this information could be used to provide intelligence to law-enforcement agencies on the key people involved in trade, or to conservationists and policy makers on the species being traded that may need further protection.Currently, large-scale monitoring by law-enforcement agencies would be difficult to achieve, primarily due to limitations of time to dedicate to this work, and problems that non-experts face in the identification of the species and origin of products for sale.  One solution to this could be the development of automated tools to detect potentially illegal trade on different platforms. Currently, work is on-going to develop such tools to detect illegal online trade via auction websites. Whilst structured commerce websites facilitate this kind of detection, social-media websites with free-form text present more of a challenge. However, developing similar tools in collaboration with social media companies may overcome these problems and improve our understanding of the nature and extent of the trade, and inform efforts to tackle it.  

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