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You can buy an endangered monkey on Facebook in 20 minutes

A squirrel monkey looks toward the camera from behind a metal cage.
A squirrel monkey victim of wild trafficking is seen in its cage at URRAS in Bogota, Colombia. Juancho Torres via Getty Images
  • Facebook has battled a wildlife trafficking problem on its platform for nearly a decade.

  • Despite efforts to moderate sales of endangered animals and ivory, sellers are easy to spot.

  • It took BI 20 minutes to find endangered squirrel monkeys and other exotic species for sale.

Turns out, you really can find anything on Facebook.

Used lawn furniture, homemade baked goods… endangered species.

It's not a new phenomenon. Outlets have been reporting on wildlife trafficking on Meta's massive social media platforms for years, and Facebook has been working with the World Wildlife Fund since 2016 to cut down on the prevalence of the illegal trade of wildlife and rare animal products like ivory.

But despite efforts to moderate the content away, the sellers remain remarkably easy to spot.

Undark Magazine, an award-winning independent science and culture publication, this week reported on a surging market on Facebook for distinctive bowmouth guitarfish horns, sold as jewelry and other accessories, contributing to the demise of the critically endangered fish.

In 2022, Vice News reported it took less than 24 hours to arrange the sale of an endangered tiger.

Though Meta, Facebook's parent company, was a founding member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online in 2018, it might be even easier now to find these illegal offerings than years ago, Business Insider found.

20 minutes to monkeys

It took BI less than two minutes to identify Facebook accounts selling the bowmouth guitarfish horns. Within 20 minutes of browsing various groups on Facebook, BI identified endangered squirrel monkeys for sale, as well as various exotic birds, caracal cats, and several species of turtles, in addition to more traditional pets and livestock, including puppies, guinea pigs, and chickens.

Some of the groups had more than 10,000 members.

Representatives for Meta, Facebook's parent company, pointed BI to the platform's internal policy regarding Land, Animals, and Animal Products, which indicates that listings on the platform may not promote the buying or selling of animals, animal products, or land in ecological conservation areas.

Pages identified by BI as violating the policy were removed, a spokesperson for Meta confirmed after a review of the content.

Meta representatives did not respond to questions from BI regarding how posts that violate this policy are moderated or whether groups and posts in languages other than English have the same moderation practices.

How social media drives exotic species sales

Crawford Allan, the senior director of wildlife at World Wildlife Fund-US, told BI that since the pandemic, social media platforms have seen an explosion in exotic pet species sales online, with the illegal traders ranging from ill-informed sellers to organized crime groups.

"It's difficult for online companies to keep up with the enormous volume of pet listings and the cunning methods criminals are using to avoid automated filters on social media," Allan said, adding that the biggest challenge is keeping ahead of the crime groups as they adapt.

World Wildlife Fund has for years provided companies in its anti-trafficking coalition, like Meta, data to help identify new keyword search terms that illegal sellers are using, as well as images of illicit products and suspicious listings they detect so they can be removed. The 47 major tech companies in the coalition pledged to use WWF's insights to remove 80% of wildlife trafficking content from their platforms by 2020.

However, research published that year by the Alliance to Counter Crime Online found that despite conservationists' assistance, Facebook had "failed to keep its promise."

"In just two mouse clicks, our researchers could locate substantial wildlife trafficking content," researchers behind the ACCO study wrote. "Mimicking the search process an average Facebook user might employ when looking to buy illegal wildlife products, such as ivory or exotic pets, we found that traffickers are easily and openly operating on the platform."

The economic ripples of extinction

In addition to the climate crisis, wildlife trafficking is a substantial contributor to the rate at which we are losing species worldwide, according to the global nonprofit environmental organization Rare Conservation, which points to critically endangered creatures like the black rhino, African elephant, and Amur leopard as species that are near extinction due to their popularity in the wildlife trade.

An ACCO expert in ape trafficking reported more than half of the world's trade of apes occurs on social media, with young primates fetching upwards of $20,000 for sellers. The group found that roughly 75% of the illegal online trade of cheetahs occurs on Meta's platform Instagram.

"Illegal wildlife trade is the second most significant threat to endangered species after habitat loss," Allan of WWF told BI, adding that social media platforms are now the dominant market for the illegal trade of endangered wildlife. "Thousands of species are exploited, with many populations being pushed to the brink of extinction to meet global demand."

It isn't just the animals that suffer when they're trafficked to the brink of extinction — it hurts agriculture, destabilizes the markets around the industry, and risks global food security by demolishing ecosystems, according to reporting by the United Nations.

One study published in Global Environmental Change estimated the economic benefits we enjoy from our environment range from $125-145 trillion a year globally. Jill Atkins, chair in financial management at Sheffield University Management School at the University of Sheffield, told finance news outlet Investec that while the impact caused by extinction is hard to calculate, the loss of a single key species could cost a significant portion of that $125-145 trillion — or wipe it out entirely.

"Facilitated by transnational organized crime networks, with links to drug, human, and weapon trafficking, illegal wildlife trade threatens not only wildlife populations," Allan told BI. "But our global security, human health, the livelihoods of local communities, and legitimate business operations."

Correction: March 23, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misstated the number of tech organizations that have signed WWF's anti-animal trafficking pledge. There are 47, not 30.

Read the original article on Business Insider