CHINA / SOCIETY
Illicit online trade of protected birds found to be rampant
Published: May 21, 2021 02:57 AM
A bird flies in the Guanshe garden in Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province, March 16, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

A bird flies in the Guanshe garden in Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province, March 16, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)


Illicit sales of protected birds have been exposed on China’s online shopping sites and social media, with endangered birds being sold as pets for thousands of dollars. Conservationists and experts have called for tougher regulation of e-commerce platforms to crack down on the trade. 

The underground trade of pet birds has gained increasing attention after a huge public backlash against so-called “blind boxes” of live pets, in which thousands of dogs, cats and rabbits were found dead while being shipped in boxes to their buyers.

Bird sellers deal with a stable group of middle-aged and elderly buyers who tend to “shop” at local bird fairs. But the emergence of novelty-seeking younger bird lovers and the development of e-commerce has greatly boosted the market for pet birds, and its private nature has further prompted the trade of endangered species. 

‘We have 70 in stock; how many do you want?’ 
On Taobao, one of China’s biggest online shopping sites, a number of shops have been found selling protected birds, including the macaw, the common hill myna and the Chinese hwamei, species that are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

One shop on Taobao named “Bird Farm” claims to sell “all kinds of birds” with prices from 15 yuan to 1,700 yuan. The buyers cannot directly place an order on Taobao, but only through private messages on WeChat. 

Another shop selling parrots uses the same trick. It asks buyers to add their WeChat account to make transactions, and offers different parrot species at prices as much as 50 times higher than on Taobao. 

“Bird Farm” changed its name late Wednesday, and can now only be found through a saved website address, while the parrot shop has also tried to cover its tracks.

The shops may have vanished from Taobao, but the birds they hold for sale have not. 

The Global Times learnt on Wednesday that Bird Farm still had more than 70 one-month old Vietnamese common hill mynas “in stock,” priced at 1,700 yuan each. “The more the cheaper; how many do you want?” asked the owner. 

In the videos he sent, some hill mynas were placed in foam boxes with twigs and dry grass put underneath. At least three birds were in one box, and they looked inactive and quiet. A few boxes were covered with plastic mesh sheets on top. Some other hill mynas were in crowded cages.
This kind of environment is very likely to cause mental pressure, stress and nutritional problems for the birds, which may lead to severe health problems or even death for them, said Li Bo, an animal protection expert and head of the wildlife conservation center in South China's Hainan Province. 

“The hill mynas can adapt relatively easily to various environments. But for other birds, such a living environment may greatly shorten their lifespan,” he told the Global Times on Wednesday.  
 
The birds, once the transaction is made, are sent from Southwest China’s Sichuan Province on a bus that takes three days to arrive in Beijing. The buyers have to send over videos that record the whole process of opening the package to see if the birds are still alive after the shipment. 

In addition to Taobao, bird sellers also use some second-hand goods online markets and social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Baidu Post Bar, one of China’s largest online communities, to seek potential buyers. 

On Tik Tok, sellers are usually disguised and describe themselves as “bird lovers” who love to share videos of birds in nature to attract followers and tell their contacts so that they can “further communicate” with followers. 

The Parrot Brother, a Tik Tok influencer with more than 100,000 followers, is one of these underground bird sellers. In his friend circle on WeChat, more than 100 parrot videos have been posted along with detailed sales information for the birds in cages.   

Parrots are among the most threatened bird species. All species of parrots except for four, including the budgerigar and cockatiel, are listed in the CITES 2019. 

The Global Times learnt that the most expensive parrot species that the Parrot Brother is selling is a blue-and-yellow macaw, at 26,800 yuan each. Most species have their own nicknames that are well-known among sellers and buyers. The African grey parrot, for example, is called “grey plane,” and sells for 8,900 yuan. 

Tougher regulations needed
The WeChat account of the Parrot Brother is labeled as “untrusted user with risk of fraud,” which means that he has been reported by a number of people as a fraud. But this does not appear to have affected his business that much. 

Li Bo said that such reporting of the bird sellers has been one of the major ways that bird conservationists have cracked down on illicit bird sales online, but there has not been enough impact. 

“The reporting cannot impose any substantial punishment on the sellers. As long as they have the ‘resources’ and a large group of interested buyers, they can always find a way to get back to the business,” Li said. 

According to China’s Criminal Law, criminals who illegally purchase, transport or sell rare or endangered wildlife and their products will face a sentence of fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years or criminal detention. 
 
In the new List of State Key Wildlife Protection that was released in February, the common hill myna, the Chinese hwamei and other wildlife birds that have long been affected by the “caged bird” culture in China, were all categorized as second-class national protected animals. 

Forest public security organs are the major authorities that handle the reported cases of illegal sales of protected birds, but the reporters have to provide accurate and detailed information to help the public security find the sellers, which is difficult as the sellers are usually very cautious and only give a provincial location from where they send the birds. 

Li said that the efforts of public security authorities are not sufficient to root out the underground market for bird sales, and more action should be taken by the e-commerce and social media platforms. 

“One or two online shops shutting down or a few sellers being caught will not fundamentally solve the problem. The ‘tumors’ are all over the body. Simply removing one or two will not cure the disease once for all,” he said.

He called on the authorities to step up the monitoring of e-commerce and other platforms and impose punishments for the companies if they fail to find and stop the illicit sale of birds. 

Echoing Li’s views, Liang Zhijian, a bird conservationist who is studying the bird trade at Sun Yat-sen University, said the online shopping companies should also put more efforts into restricting the channels for raising protected birds, such as banning the sales of the cages specially designed for some species.
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