Thousands of animals threatened with extinction are being offered for sale online in Europe, claim conservationists.
Researchers found 11,772 items — either live animals or their body parts — over a six-week period in the UK, France, Germany and Russia.
They ranged from live cheetahs, parrots and a penguin to ivory from elephant tusks and polar bears skins.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which carried out the research, has called for governments to crack down on the problem.
It says historically illegal trade in wildlife was carried out in offline markets but that the internet is offering new opportunities for traffickers to reach vast online marketplaces where “the chances of detection are low and profits from selling endangered wildlife can be extremely high”.
The new possibilities offered by the internet has coincided with increasing pressure on the world’s wildlife, researchers say.
“In the past decade, more than 7,000 rhinos have been poached for their horns. Today, the rhino population is estimated to be as low as around 28,000,” said IFAW’s report.
“It is estimated that more than 20,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory, with one survey finding that numbers plummeted by around 144,000 between 2007 and 2014.”
Researchers said it was difficult to tell whether the items being offered for sale were illegal or not.
It used the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to identify whether animals offered for sale online were threatened with extinction or not.
IFAW’s researchers found 5,381 adverts spread across 106 online marketplaces and social media platforms.
The 11,772 endangered and threatened items they uncovered were worth €3.36 million ($3.94m).
“The illegal wildlife trade represents a multifaceted threat to animal life and must be met with a comprehensive response,” said IFAW wildlife crime programme director Rikkert Reijnen.
“With the release of this report, IFAW remains committed to bringing key stakeholders together from both the private and public sector to provide information, education and support in the fight against cybercrime because – put simply – it takes a network to defeat a network.
“For governments around the world, it means allocating enforcement resources to identify and prosecute wildlife cybercriminals.
"For the private sector, it means online marketplaces and social media platforms ensure their sites are a no-go zone for wildlife traffickers seeking to abuse their platforms for profit.
"And consumers can help by serving as the eyes and ears in this effort, reporting potentially illegal advertisements and posts to the companies where they are hosted.”