The dark web trades wildlife, but mostly for use as drugs.


Contemporary wildlife trade is massively facilitated by the Internet. By design, the dark web is one layer of the Internet that is difficult to monitor and continues to lack thorough investigation. Here, we accessed a comprehensive database of dark web marketplaces to search across c. 2 million dark web advertisements over 5 years using c. 7 k wildlife trade-related search terms. We found 153 species traded in 3332 advertisements (c. 600 advertisements per year). We characterized a highly specialized wildlife trade market, where c. 90% of dark-web wildlife advertisements were for recreational drugs. We verified that 68 species contained chemicals with drug properties. Species advertised as drugs mostly comprised of plant species, however, fungi and animals were also traded as drugs. Most species with drug properties were psychedelics (45 species), including one genera of fungi, Psilocybe, with 19 species traded on the dark web. The native distribution of plants with drug properties were clustered in Central and South America. A smaller proportion of trade was for purported medicinal properties of wildlife, clothing, decoration, and as pets. Synthesis and applications. Our results greatly expand on what wildlife species are currently traded on the dark web and provide a baseline to track future changes. Given the low number of advertisements, we assume current conservation and biosecurity risks of the dark web are low. While wildlife trade is rampant on other layers of the Internet, particularly on e-commerce and social media sites, trade on the dark web may still increase if these popular platforms are rendered less accessible to traders (e.g., via an increase in enforcement). We recommend focussing on surveillance of e-commerce and social media sites, but we encourage continued monitoring of the dark web periodically to evaluate potential shifts in wildlife trade across this more occluded layer of the Internet.

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