The sale of endangered animals is not allowed on Facebook, yet a recent investigation revealed that there are at least several pages where pangolins and pangolin scales are still being sold on Facebook.
The scaly, ant-eating pangolin is in an unfortunate situation. Through no fault of its own, it is being poached to extinction because its scales and organs are in high demand for traditional medicine in China and Vietnam. Pangolins are also hunted and eaten as bushmeat in Africa, with as many as 2.7 million African pangolins being killed every year. Their scales are also used by local healers.
The animal is also being studied as a potential coronavirus host, with wildlife trading being increasingly linked to new diseases — including COVID-19.
When left in their natural environment, pangolins don’t pose any danger to humans. But if humans interact with them — say, through an illegal trafficking operation — they can pass on viruses such as the one causing COVID-19, including to humans.
Yet, despite all this, pangolins are still being sold on Facebook.
An investigation carried by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) found several public Facebook pages and posts selling pangolin or pangolin body parts — something which is illegal under both national and international laws and forbidden by Facebook’s terms of service.
“Facebook’s Community Standards prohibit the sale of endangered species or their parts, and the company’s Commerce Policies go even further, banning listings that promote the sale of any animals or animal products,” TTP’s announcement reads.
“But TTP found a number of Facebook pages that offer to sell pangolins or their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The eight pangolin species range from vulnerable to critically endangered and are protected under national and international laws.”
For instance, one such page, created in January, was blatantly called “Pangolin Scales for Sale in Vietnam”. Buyers were directed to make contact with the owner via Facebook-owned WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service commonly used by wildlife traffickers.
Another Facebook page, simply called “Pangolin”, offered oils made from pangolin and was categorized as an “Animal Rescue Service” and a “Healthy/Beauty” Facebook page.
Another page found by TTP called “Rhino Horns and Pangolin scales for sale in China” encouraged buyers to “embrace our businesses like never before”. The page was listed as a “Petting Zoo”.
Facebook did take down at least one of the pages after a BuzzFeed journalist (who had been given access to the findings) asked Facebook for comment, but so far, the platform seems unwilling or incapable of properly enforcing the sale of animal parts on its platform.
Facebook’s efforts seem, while significant, not ambitious enough. In March 2018, Facebook joined the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, but the goal of that is to reduce wildlife trafficking activity by 80% by 2020, not to eliminate it completely. Furthermore, since the signing, Facebook has been repeatedly accused of not only allowing such pages to exist but also of serving advertisements promoting wildlife trafficking.
In 2019, an extensive report by the nonprofit group Traffic (also part of the Coalition) documented the extensive trade in hornbill species on Thai-speaking Facebook pages, concluding:
“Although Thai authorities have successfully carried out enforcement action in at least five online trading cases involving hornbills, there is clearly such more activity taking place, and one that requires more active and comprehensive monitoring and law enforcement action.”
Then, another report by Deutsche Welle found that “wildlife trade thrives on Facebook,” suggesting that tech giants aren’t really doing enough to stop the proliferation of wildlife trafficking on their platforms.
The persistent, damning reports, along with the prevalence of this type of activity on Facebook even as we’re facing a wildlife-related pandemic, highlights a stringent need for the tech company to enforce its legal (as well as moral) commitments.