The World Wild Web

Add a new hazard to the forces threatening the globe’s rarest creatures: the Internet.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

The blue Lear’s macaw, a type of parrot with striking indigo plumage, is one of the rarest animals in the world; an estimated 150 remain in the wild, most of them living in a single canyon in northeastern Brazil. Capturing or selling the birds is strictly illegal under Brazilian law and inter-national wildlife treaties. Yet an enterprising collector can acquire a Lear’s macaw through the same system that puts out-of-print books and antique table linens at the fingertips of collectors worldwide—a growing online network of specialized chat rooms, auctions, and retail sites.

An ad for a blue macaw (asking price: $60,000) was one of some 5,000 listings on the Internet for rare and endangered animals from Brazil discovered by Renctas, a Brazilian organization that monitors the illegal wildlife trade. In a recent study, the group concluded that the Internet has revolutionized the international traffic in rare and endangered creatures like the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko, the albino monocle cobra, and the Komodo dragon. “It was like being in some kind of animal supermarket,” Renctas’ director, Dener Giovanini, recalls. “We never imagined that the trade on the Internet would be as serious as this.”

Giovanini says the Web has boosted demand for illegal animals and changed the way traffickers do business: Some, he notes, place specific orders with their procurers based on requests from online customers. Because deals initiated over the Internet are often consummated via phone and fax, the group was not able to pinpoint how much money is spent each year on online animal trafficking. According to the international police agency Interpol, the worldwide trade in rare creatures is worth $5 billion a year.

“Traffickers realize that by selling their products in cyberspace not only do they reach a lot more people, but they don’t come under any one country’s jurisdiction,” says Crawford Allan, global enforcement officer for the watchdog group traffic International. “Because of this, they can escape prosecution even if their crimes have been detected.”

Ernest Mayer, chief of special operations for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he is particularly concerned about the Web’s potential to attract new sellers and buyers, sometimes turning casual collectors into international smugglers. After prodding from the agency, the online auction giant eBay issued warnings against selling rare animals and animal parts, but federal agents still find users posting offers for everything from eagle feathers to a frozen tiger cub.

For enforcement agencies, there is one upside to the Internet trade: If buyers and sellers can prowl the Web for their quarry, so can investigators. One recent Fish and Wildlife case involved a trio of reptile enthusiasts in Arizona and Australia who met in a chat room and proceeded to exchange snakes packaged in cookie tins and potato-chip bags. The Arizona collectors were caught when they offered some of their Australian reptiles for sale in the chat room, which happened to be monitored by an informant. “They didn’t try to hide things at all,” says federal agent Kathryn Looney. “They even included a phone number on the bottom of the ad.”


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend