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 worldwidea 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."