Is Wechat’s action on illegal wildlife trade just a hide-and-seek trick?

Hello, this is my very first blog. I want to talk about the China’s rampant online wildlife products and the influence of the Wechat recent action on banning the illegal wildlife trade.

This week, the mobile chat app Wechat, also known as the leading social media platform for online wildlife trade has finally taken action. It exposed 168 accounts that were allegedly associated with illegal wildlife sales, including the sales of ivory, mammoth ivory, rhino horns and helmeted hornbills. These accounts will be closed for 30 days. Wechat claimed they would work closely with scientific institutions and relevant NGOs and send out a clear message that Wechat has zero tolerance for illegal wildlife online sales. It also encourages users to report abuse once found wildlife products for sale.

Rhino horn carved ornament for sale on Wechat (picture from Wechat official weibo)

Ivory carved Buddha amulet for sale on Wechat (picture from Wechat official weibo)

This is an encouraging small step, given the contexts that Wechat as China’s largest mobile social media sent out a clear message to the public and set up a positive example.  I can see on Weibo many NGOs and activists forwarded this news and celebrated on that. However, the penalty of a 30-day suspension is far away from  adequate in my opinion. The 30-day suspension is more like a hide-and-seek game and these accounts are likely to be active again after 30 days. Once closed, the cost of setting up new accounts and keeping posting is very minimal. A conservationist I knew, had told me one of the sellers he has been tracking requested his current subscribers to switch to another account and the streams of offers continues as per normal.

For Wechat, a mobile app company, what else can it do? It is not the forestry police, it does not have the enforcement authority or even the capacity to verify authenticity of sale or products on offer. The current voluntary report abuse system is totally relying on users. It is fragmented and has little power to deter crime.  I am expecting the actual enforcement to take place that the forestry police work with the relevant interest parties together to effectively shut down these online hubs.

To give you guys a sense of the rampant online sales of wildlife products, let’s have a look at a recent report, TRAFFIC claimed social media had became the new heavens for the wildlife sales, with around 2000 monthly new added advertisements, in which most lead to social media for the final transaction.

Number of total illegal wildlife product advertisements in monitored Chinese-language websites (January 2012-September 2014) © TRAFFIC

We can see the online advertisements dropped a lot from 2013 thanks to a series of collaborative operations with traditional e-commerce giants: Alibaba, Tecent, Jingdong etc. Well, it’s hard to imagine what was it like before  2013.  Recently, the logistics industries also joint force in this war. With all of these efforts from different sectors, the key comes back to the China’s enforcement. It is the only force can take the lead in combating the illegal wildlife trade and engage all of these sectors.

I will keep a close eye on the follow-up enforcement if there is any. Stay wild xxx

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