A spate of recent operations targeting wildlife trafficking rings in Brazil have highlighted the extent to which such groups have been increasingly relying on social media and messaging services to make sales during the coronavirus pandemic.
On November 29, police in the state of Santa Catarina dismantled a wildlife trafficking ring dedicated to poaching and selling rare black-necked swans, as well as many other exotic species, according to Globo’s Fantástico news program. Authorities say the network generated over 8 million reais (about $1.5 million) per year as a result of their illicit operations, which largely relied on messaging applications like WhatsApp and Facebook to make sales.
A few days later, on December 4, Brazil’s environmental protection agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis — IBAMA) launched the second phase of an operation to dismantle a criminal network involved in wildlife trafficking. The operation resulted in the rescue of over 200 animals and 11 arrests in the states of São Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná and Pernambuco.
Among those arrested in the operation was a criminal known as “Zé do Bode,” a notorious wildlife trafficker who also used social media to make sales.
The operation began in May 2019 after police identified an organized criminal group engaging in the illegal wildlife trade.
Transactions in Brazil’s thriving wildlife trade largely take place via WhatsApp. Founder of Brazilian NGO RENCTAS (Rede Nacional de Combate ao Tráfico de Animais Silvestres), Dener Giovanini, told Globo that police are currently monitoring 800 WhatsApp groups with over 3.5 million messages linked to the illegal wildlife trade.
However, authorities have been collaborating with some non-governmental organizations that use the internet as a tool to fight back against wildlife trafficking. This includes RENCTAS, which reportedly tracks the sale of illegal wildlife on WhatsApp and Facebook before passing the data to law enforcement agencies.
InSight Crime Analysis
In recent years, wildlife traffickers have more heavily relied upon social networking applications to make sales in Brazil, taking advantage of the relative anonymity and global reach such platforms offer.
Last year, RENCTAS reported a staggering 3.5 million promotions linked to the illegal trade on social networking websites.
And the use of online platforms has been exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions.
As many traditional locations for retail — including markets — were closed and people stayed at home in the midst of the pandemic, many traffickers increasingly used online platforms as alternative sales outlets.
In September, InSight Crime reported on how Brazil’s illicit market for wildlife trafficking had been shifting during the pandemic. Economic hardship due to job losses and little risk of being caught seems to have people have been tempted to enter the trade, illegally selling wild animals as an alternative source of income.
More organized networks have also used online platforms alongside their existing modus operandi to make illicit sales.
Rings operating across Brazil have been known to forge government-issued identification that allow illegally trafficked animals to appear legal. The network recently caught out in Santa Catarina had been putting identification rings of dead animals on illegally poached birds.
Brazil is not the only country in the region with a thriving online wildlife trade. As the pandemic has forced markets to close, illicit sales of wildlife in Ecuador and Colombia have largely moved online.