More than a quarter-of-a-million people have now died from COVID-19 in a pandemic that has infected just shy of four million people internationally and affected the lives of billions more. Scientists suspect the outbreak originated in bats, before possibly spreading to pangolins, and making the jump to humans inside the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China – which is reported to have stocked 120 wild animals across 75 species. In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a temporary ban on the hunting, trading and consumption of wild animals, and there has been international pressure – including from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – for it to be made permanent.
Since China’s Wildlife Protection Law of 1988, which allows the “domestication and breeding of wildlife,” millions have relied on the trade as a source of livelihood and Dr Richard Thomas, an expert in wildlife trade monitoring at Traffic, has told Express.co.uk that the problem in Asia's trafficking routes now runs deep.
He said: “Most of our staff are based in Asia, so we have big offices in Kuala Lumpur, China, Vietnam and Japan.
“We do a lot of physical market monitoring, where my colleagues will go and have a look around a market and see what’s for sale.
“But we also do a lot of work monitoring online sales, to see what’s taking place there.
Facebook and Google have removed millions of online adverts related to wildlife trade (Image: GETTY)
Coronavirus has taken the lives of 250,000 people now (Image: GETTY)
I think we will see an increase in online trading with the ban that has been brought in
Dr Richard Thomas
“Out of that, we have become involved with the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which includes major companies like Google and Facebook, but started with the Chinese companies Baidu and Alibaba.”
The coalition was set up in 2018 by Traffic, the WWF and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to bring together e-commerce, search and social media companies across the world to combat wildlife trafficking online with a target to reduce activity by 80 percent in 2020.
This bold and ambitious goal inspired 34 global technology companies to join forces with the leading wildlife organisations and proactively tackle the trafficking and sales of items including elephant ivory, tiger fur, rhino horns, pangolin scales, turtle meat and other exotic animals kept as pets or killed for their claimed benefits in traditional medicine.
Upon joining the coalition, companies submit a confidential, platform-specific action plan to address the unique threats on their platform as the situation is ever-evolving with the use of code words and other covert tactics.
A report from March, shared with Express.co.uk, showed 3,335,381 listings had been removed across the board thanks to artificial intelligence and 470 individually trained cyber staff members had flagged 4,500 wildlife products and identified 1,170 suspicious wildlife code words.
READ MORE: China fury: Why bat trade STILL poses huge threat as experts fear wet market U-turn
Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (Image: GETTY)
Dr Thomas outlined some of the work that was being done in Asian countries to infiltrate the trade routes, but he fears an increase amid China’s recent ban.
He said: “We do a lot of work with enforcement officers, providing basic training, skills like species identification, letting customs officers know what to be on the lookout for and how to distinguish different animal groups.
“I think we will see an increase in online trading with the ban that has been brought in.
“Wildlife is another commodity, it’s bought and sold like anything else, and, increasingly, the world is going online.
“There has been a big growth in trading of wildlife and wildlife parts online, which creates enforcement challenges.
“Often it’s taking place on closed social media groups or on particular social media applications which are hard for enforcement agencies to infiltrate.”
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China has temporarily banned wildlife trade (Image: GETTY)
Xi Jinping made the ban in February (Image: GETTY)
Express.co.uk spoke to Facebook, who banned the trade of all live animals and products listed as endangered and made it easier for users on both Facebook and Instagram to flag prohibited species listings in