CAPE TOWN - Although cyberspace is not the main platform for the illegal wildlife trade, it provides an anonymous and versatile marketplace in which to buy and sell. It is safe to say that the internet plays a role at some point in an increasing number of wildlife trafficking incidents.

By turning an eye towards innovative technology, law enforcement agencies are creating more effective ways of tracking down the people involved in these activities – often, by following the money trail.

Although many e-commerce (e.g. eBay in the United Kingdom) and social media platforms (e.g. Facebook) have banned the sale of wildlife specimens protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it is still easy to find almost anything you are looking for. Often, you can find ball pythons, Hermann’s tortoises and boa constrictors (all CITES Appendix I and II) on closed Facebook groups, with names like “Reptiles for sale in Europe”.

Finding live animals online is easy and at the Terraristika reptile fair, these communities meet to sell and buy endangered species like certain tortoises, turtles and snakes.
Finding live animals online is easy and at the Terraristika reptile fair, these communities meet to sell and buy endangered species like certain tortoises, turtles and snakes.

Following the money is one way of attempting to disrupt digitally-enabled wildlife trafficking. This can, however, be difficult to do, with a wide variety of payment systems and varying levels of regulation around the world. Although many traders prefer to operate in cash, systems like Western Union which is not always easily traceable and WeChat Pay, which is integrated into the social media channel, make tracking down perpetrators an even more complicated task.

Turning to technical innovations to solve the problem has become the leading approach by organisations like the​ ​Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime​, Interpol and​ ​Rhino Coin​. These include the creation of a tool that searches the Internet and identifies URLs where a commodity is being advertised for sale or talked about; interacting with sellers and buyers to try to better understand how these transactions really work and trading legal rhino horn in the form of cryptocurrency to raise funds for anti-poaching efforts.

In this investigation we look at how online illegal wildlife trade facilitates illicit financial flow; what interacting with traffickers is really like; what impact increased digitally-enabled trade has on grassroots, anti-poaching units and what role – if any – technical innovation is having on disrupting the market. This is a transnational investigation that links Africa, Europe and Asia, and incorporates the efforts of journalists from South Africa, Italy and China.


For their safety, our team member from Shanghai, China, has chosen to remain anonymous. They have several years of experience as an investigative environmental reporter in Asia and Africa.

The journalist is known to Journalismfund.eu. 

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Roxanne Joseph 

On 20 September 2019, it came to our attention that Roxanne Joseph had lied about having cancer in 2015 and 2016. As a result of this, many in the journalism community argued that 'she broke the core ethics of journalism including accountability, transparency and truth-telling'. For this reason, Wits University journalism department removed her from the programme of the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2019.

Journalismfund.eu was not aware of these allegations when we awarded her team a grant in November 2018. Journalismfund.eu will not be awarding Roxanne Joseph any more grants in the future given the serious nature of her actions. As for the Journalismfund.eu-supported investigation that Roxanne and her team had done, we've been assured by Oxpeckers that Roxanne 'produced an impressive body of work for the unit, and has consistently acted in a professional manner.'

  • Here is Roxanne's statement about the matter.
  • Here is an article about the incident featured by Wits Vuvuzela.
  • Here's a statement from Oxpecker Investigative Environmental Journalism where Roxanne was an associate. She has since been suspended.
Team members

Roxanne Joseph

Roxanne Joseph is a data journalist from Cape Town, South Africa.

Rudi Bressa

Rudi Bressa (Italy) is a freelance journalist and naturalist specialising in nature conservation and restoration.


Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an investigative environmental journalist, founder of Oxpeckers (South Africa)

Fiona Macleod
A grant of €19,070 was allotted on 15 November 2018.

How we (almost) became reptile smugglers - Oxpeckers, 30 July 2019

Inside the temple of trade - Oxpeckers, 2 August 2019

Tech solutions for rhino trade - Oxpeckers, 8 August 2019

Rhino trade in the heart of darknets - Mail & Guardian, 8 August 2019

Ecco come siamo (quasi) diventati trafficanti di rettili - La Stampa, 2 September 2019


Online Illegal Wildlife Trade - Wildlife Trafficking Stories, 23 August 2019

On the frontline - Wildlife Trafficking Stories, 23 August 2019


Com'è facile (purtroppo) diventare trafficanti di rettili e animali protetti (How we [almost] became reptile smugglers) - La Stampa, 25 August 2019

Darknet rhino trade needs high tech solutions - Daily Dispatch, 23 August 2019


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