Vietnam flag and Facebook

Facebook blind spot allows timber wildlife trafficking to Asia to continue

Image credit: Dreamstime

An analysis of dozens of accounts and groups shows how the social media platform facilitates Vietnamese and African traders who export and sell large quantities of precious wood from Africa, often breaching export laws and violating international conservation treaties.

“Can people buy Kosso wood from you?”, was the message to a Nigerian log trafficker that kicked off an investigation into dozens of Facebook accounts responsible for smuggling precious, often protected wood species from Africa into Vietnam.

The answer to our inquiry about Kosso, a CITES-listed rosewood illegally harvested in Africa where loggers wreak havoc with local biodiversity and from where it's mostly illegally exported - was hardly surprising: “I have lots of Kosso wood for sale in Nigeria,” the Nigerian Facebook account replied. Records show the account owner is very active on Vietnamese Facebook groups.

It's just one example of a larger analysis that reveals how Facebook facilitates trading accounts and groups that shift large quantities of precious wood across continents.

The past year of global pandemic has seen an increase in the number of Facebook ads for logs from African nations at high risk.

Once imported into Vietnam, they often end up in one of the largest wood-processing powerhouses. Vietnam's national strategy is all about wood processing. Foreign direct investments into the sector spiralled. 

The costs of illegal timber harvesting and its trade are enormous. Experts estimate it accounts for between 15 and 30 per cent of the global timber trade. The EU thinks it could be as high as 20 to 40 per cent. Africa in particular accounts for outliers: timber from Gabon has a 70 per cent chance of coming from an illegal source. All this adds to market losses of around US$10bn annually from illegal logging that deprive the government of US$5bn in revenue.

By tracking log-filled containers via their tracking numbers from images back to their African ports of origin, E&T revealed a hidden supply chain through which wood is trafficked to Asia and sold with the help of Facebook.

In 2019 Facebook banned all illegal wildlife trade from its communities that fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) rules. However, researchers think the trade has only continued as if nothing changed.

In Vietnam and China, illegal wood exports often end up in legitimate sectors such as furniture manufacturing. Several accounts offered detailed descriptions of the contents of containers filled to the brim with timber. The description of export locations such as Nigeria or Zambia and other African nations, aided in determining where blanket log export bans may have been breached.

E&T shared details on some Facebook accounts with investigators at the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Thomas Chung, a forest campaigner at EIA says the list of posts for one account is a good example of the hundreds if not thousands of traders on social media. The Vietnamese trader in question has advertised at least 34 log-filled containers since September last year. To Chung he appears “quite careless as they are very open about their goods. Normally, these offers are much more subtle,” he said.

Chung also says identifying illegality is hard. Laws are complex. For Kosso wood it’s simpler now since the type of African rosewood was listed under CITES since 2016. This investigation found several Kosso ads on Facebook. Even some from 2020 remained live.

Previous EIA investigations identified Vietnamese Facebook groups where traders offered wood alongside forged paperwork. Documents are often falsified and obtained via corruption, experts say.

Another problem is that it's hard to tell whether smuggled wood is actually protected. To tell whether timber is listed under CITES it would need to be identified first. IDing species from images alone is near impossible: “It is notoriously difficult to identify timber species from a photograph,” Chung says. It makes it hard to crack down on potentially illegal trades on Facebook, potentially offering impunity to trading Facebook accounts.

Investigators increasingly use botanical forensics to identify wood on the fly. In practice, there is no alternative from being in situ, for example at a port site where containers with logs arrive.

A small AI-powered and hand-held wood examination device, which is called the XyloTron — developed by data scientists with open source technology — helps researchers nowadays at the Center for Wood Anatomy Research to identify species in a scalable and affordable manner. 

What’s the role of Facebook?

The tech giant told E&T via email it uses technology to spot and remove illegal activity on its platform. “We use a combination of technology, human review and reports from our community to find and remove violating content, including a global safety and security team of over 35,000 people, ” a spokesperson wrote. 

But from various sources, we are told that the company is largely relying on external tip-offs when it comes to clamping down on wildlife trafficking at large. This often includes NGOs or activists who highlight illegal activity that Facebook then often (but not always) acts upon. 

Rowan Martin at the World Parrot Trust says Facebook relies heavily on activists and NGOs fighting wildlife trafficking to take action. While the detection of some of these require an understanding of wildlife trade networks many entities are found through simple text-based searches that anyone could perform, he says. It raises questions of why Facebook is not doing more to proactively seek out and remove harmful prohibited content, he says.

Simple searches on Facebook and via Google also allowed this investigation to access and track two dozen accounts that illustrate the role Facebook plays in non-animal wildlife trafficking. 

E&T shared Facebook's response with Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO). She says that if she had a dollar for every time a Facebook spokesperson delivered this canned statement, she would be a rich woman. She heard Facebook’s line on how it finds violating content before: “whether the crime is human trafficking, poisonous counterfeit pills, child sex abuse content or the illegal wildlife trade”.

Peters, who said that not only Facebook but also Instagram, and WeChat have become ground zero for wildlife crime syndicates to connect with buyers, tells us that the world’s largest social media firm does precious little to reduce illegal activity on their platforms, especially when it’s not in English”.

More African countries are about to put more solid log export restrictions in place. Countries in the Congo Basin agreed to higher barriers to stop precious wood from leaving nations. It’s meant to start early next year.

Only in February, Facebook came under pressure when reporters discovered Facebook Marketplace ads selling parts of Brazil's Amazon rainforest illegally, some in protected areas include national forests and land reserved for indigenous peoples.

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