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Turning online illegal wildlife trade into an opportunity for Vietnamese law enforcement investigators

Hanoi (Viet Nam), 18 April 2017 - With millions of people using the internet everyday for long periods of time, and as demand for illegal wildlife products continues to escalate, organised criminal groups are increasingly using a range of online platforms and technologies to facilitate the transnational trafficking of wildlife products.

Any internet platform can be used to facilitate wildlife trafficking and illegal wildlife trade, including online trading sites such as Ali Baba and eBay, and social media applications such as WeChat, Whatsapp, Facebook, Zalo, and others. With the average internet user in Viet Nam spending between 3 to 7 hours per day online, and the number of smartphone users in Viet Nam estimated to reach 28.5 million people this year, this situation is creating a number of challenges for law enforcement authorities in detecting, preventing and controlling wildlife crime. For example, the internet enables illegal wildlife products to be advertised within closed groups of people online; applications enable cheap encrypted communication between criminal groups anywhere in the world; and communication records within these applications may not appear on telephone records.

In cooperation with the Ministry of Public Security, the UNODC Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime organised a two-day training course (17-18 April) on "Online Investigations in Wildlife Crime" to develop the capacity of Vietnamese law enforcement agencies to investigate online sales of illegal wildlife, infiltrate existing online markets, collect relevant evidence and develop enforcement countermeasures. Participants included 29 officers from the Environmental Police, High-tech Crime Police, Anti-Smuggling Police, and the Forest Protection Department.

"Wildlife traffickers currently advertise their products online quite openly, and it's fairly common to find a trafficker posting photos and other information that reveals their true identity," said Mr. Steve Carmody, UNODC's Senior Law Enforcement Advisor. "This presents a window of opportunity for law enforcement investigators to collect intelligence and evidence in relation to wildlife trafficking."

During the training course, Wildlife Conservation Society Vietnam - a partner and co-organiser of this initiative - presented results from its recent study into online illegal wildlife trade in Viet Nam, which found that 90% of Facebook users talking about wildlife products were aged between 18 to 34 years old; more than 80% were male; and the most commonly discussed products were elephant tail hair, ivory rings and tiger claws. Importantly, the study also identified a sharp decrease in online "buzz" relating to wildlife products during July 2016, which coincided with the widely-publicised trial and conviction of online wildlife trader Mr. Phan Huynh Anh Khoa. This could indicate a link between strong law enforcement action not only in stopping current crime, but also in preventing similar crimes in the near future.  

The training course was newly developed in response to the Prime Minister Directive No. 28/CT-TTg issued in September 2016, which instructed the Ministry of Public Security to take the lead role in investigating and dismantling activities involving the illegal online display, trade, advertisement and use of rhino horn and ivory in the domestic market.

"Although the internet presents many law enforcement challenges, such as apparent anonymity for buyers and sellers of illegal wildlife products; it does leave some evidence and it is possible to track the illegal traders," said Ms. Delphine Malard, Head of the Political Section of the European Union Delegation to Viet Nam, in her opening remarks. "The EU together with its partners stands ready to support Viet Nam in addressing this issue."

UNODC also recently conducted the same training course in Thailand.

Click here to learn more about UNODC's Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crimes.

Click here to learn more about UNODC's work on wildlife and forest crime.

Click here to learn more about UNODC's Country Programme in Viet Nam.