A study conducted by the University of Kent's Dr Amy Hinsley and Dr David Roberts, and published by Conservation Biology, represents the first large-scale global survey of wildlife trade via a social-media site, using the orchid trade as a case study.
Orchids make up 70% of species listed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and some can sell on the black market for tens of thousands of pounds, thus providing the motivation for traders to bypass the rules aimed at preventing species from becoming extinct. Illegal traders are keen to find new ways to advertise and sell their plants on the black market, with social media emerging as the new way to do so.
The researchers found wild orchids were being traded from all over the world, and recorded trade in rare and threatened species including one assessed as Critically Endangered. At least two others are listed as protected in the country from which they were being sold. Although total numbers of trade posts are relatively small, the high proportion of wild collected orchids for sale supports calls for better monitoring of social media for trade in wild collected plants and other traded wildlife.
A previous study by Dr Hinsley and Dr Roberts shows that orchid hobbyists who buy on the internet have a preference for rare species. The sale of wild orchids on social media, if left unchecked, is likely to contribute to pressure on vulnerable wild populations.
Dr Hinsley and Dr Roberts assert that law enforcers and conservationists must discover, monitor and respond to new developments quickly.
The increasing use of the internet by wildlife traders, especially those involved in illegal trade, is a significant challenge to conservation of traded species especially those in niche markets. Evidence suggests increased regulation, like eBay's ban on ivory sales in 2009, may be driving wildlife traders to sell via social media.
Dr Hinsley and Dr Roberts are members of Kent's Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), within its School of Anthropology and Conservation.
'Estimating the extent and structure of trade in horticultural orchids via social media' (Amy Hinsley, Tamsin E. Lee, Joseph R. Harrison and David L Roberts, University of Kent) is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12721/abstract
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Notes to editors
Established in 1965, the University of Kent – the UK's European university – now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.
It has been ranked: third for overall student satisfaction in the 2014 National Student Survey; 16th in the Guardian University Guide 2016; 23rd in the Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2016; and 22nd in the Complete University Guide 2015.
In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, Kent is in the top 10% of the world's leading universities for international outlook and 66th in its table of the most international universities in the world. The THE also ranked the University as 20th in its 'Table of Tables' 2016.
Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.
Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium.
In 2014, Kent received its second Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.