The Dark Web of Online Spider Sales
Speaker 1: My name is Richard Stewart. I run a YouTube channel called the Tarantula Collective, where I make videos about tarantulas, scorpions and other invertebrates.
Lizzie O’Leary: Back in college, Richard was actually scared of spiders.
Speaker 1: And I had a professor that kind of challenged me and said that my fear isn’t actually of the spiders, it’s just the fear of the unknown.
Lizzie O’Leary: And so to conquer his fear, Richard got a tarantula. His roommate wasn’t very old, but 20 years later, he’s still keeping tarantulas. He’s part of what you might call the spider Internet. His YouTube channel has 117,000 subscribers, sells tarantula merch and is pretty fun.
Speaker 1: Don’t let the beard fool you. I am neither an expert nor professional. I’m just a guy with a lot of tarantulas and a few cameras that just wants to share my experiences and opinions with you that I’ve gathered over the past couple of decades.
Lizzie O’Leary: Over the past few pandemic years, tarantula keeping has exploded. You don’t need much space or money.
Speaker 1: You may. You’re paying 100 bucks for the tarantula and maybe 50 bucks for the enclosure, and then 50 bucks for everything else that it needs. So it’s low cost, low maintenance. I mean, it’s just it’s one of the easiest species out there to keep it. It’s almost like having a houseplant.
Lizzie O’Leary: That’s also meant that the spider internet or should I say spider web, I’m sorry, has grown exponentially. There are Facebook forums and places to buy and sell. Spiders and mysteries. Spider Unboxing on YouTube.
Speaker 3: Hello everyone. Welcome back to my channel. This week I have been sent a mystery box by the spider provider.
Lizzie O’Leary: It’s what it sounds like. You pay a set amount. Order your box online, and then you get an assortment of invertebrates.
Speaker 3: All right, so the first one from the mystery box that we’re going to unpack is going to be the T elbow plus s, which is the curly hair, the absolute classic. And here the oh.
Lizzie O’Leary: The tiny tarantula about the size of a thumbnail is just hanging out in a little plastic tube. There are a lot of these videos on the Internet. I have watched them.
Speaker 4: Now, I don’t think that most people on boxing think of arachnids that could scuttle in any direction. Would be that something that they would have been anything but a nightmare. But for some people, having a mystery box of spiders is genuinely an exciting thing.
Lizzie O’Leary: That’s Dr. Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong. And what she found is a booming online marketplace of arachnids. It’s unregulated across borders, and the Internet has made it massive. Most concerning of all, if left unchecked, this kind of trafficking can actually make entire species go extinct.
Lizzie O’Leary: So today on the show, we’re going to take you inside it. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined and also spiders. Stick around.
Speaker 5: La la la la la la la la.
Lizzie O’Leary: There are a lot of people keeping track of conventionally cute species that are traded online, you know, trafficked mammals and birds, that kind of thing. The big agreement is called CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and they monitor some of this wildlife traffic, but not a lot of the less cute animals like reptiles. Then when you get into arachnids, the data is scarce. That’s where Alice Hughes and her colleagues come in. They found and described in the journal Conservation Biology that more than a thousand arachnid species are being traded online. And only 2% of those are regulated.
Speaker 4: We know that through the pandemic has been increased interest in buying arachnids because, hey, if you live in a small space, you can’t have ten dogs. It’s not 100 arachnids. You can have a hundred different arachnid species. You can have one with bright blue legs or red stripes on it. There are some really cool species out there, and yet this is massively under-regulated and there’s also a rapid rate of species description.
Lizzie O’Leary: What’s species description?
Speaker 4: New species. So what people don’t realize is there’s actually hundreds of species described every year. Now, we don’t call them new species because they didn’t just get beamed down from space and come into being. We just didn’t know they were that. There are literally thousands of species that we don’t know exist.
Lizzie O’Leary: With arachnids, she says. Sometimes as many as thousands of species are described every year, so quote unquote, new species are being traded without scientists realizing it. Then there’s another problem, which is that a lot of these animals are traded under nicknames.
Speaker 4: And of course, there are no good maps for the invertebrate species. So we needed to find a different way to map out where these animals were coming from so we could measure the impacts of trade. And so in this paper, we have tried to do all of that. And not only did we find more than 1200 species in trade, we also found potentially 100 species that on scientifically described yet are basically being traded under nicknames for the same name. Always get seats, so people are either referring to the place it came from or the color.
Lizzie O’Leary: One of the most striking things that Dr. Hughes found was how many of these animals are not bred in captivity. She says the data shows that as many as 70% of the animals being traded online come from the wild. In many ways, that is a direct consequence of the Internet.
Speaker 4: Now, in the past, your trade in the middle of Borneo did not have a mobile phone. You would have relied basically on quite a slow system of people going through middlemen and the middlemen then going and saying, okay, I’m trying to find these species, or Have you got anything new for me? But now we live in a world where everyone is connected to the Internet.
Lizzie O’Leary: There’s also the trade on social media, which is hard to monitor because there are no middlemen. Platforms like Facebook are supposed to ban wildlife trading, but Hughes says it happens anyway.
Speaker 4: What has happened is often this is now taking place on things like Facebook and Instagram, and people will upload a photo sometimes with words embedded in it, which makes it quite hard to pull the information out. But it means that the sellers are directly connected to the buyers and you have no middlemen. And that means no matter what corner of the planet you’re on, you can be accessing wildlife that comes directly from the wild and there is no data or quantity of wildlife coming. And so when it starts, it is difficult to know. But in the last few years, with increasing connectivity across the planet, it’s just become an absolutely massive issue and it’s become very hard to regulate because now you have hundreds of people involved even at the collection end, and they may not have a middleman anymore because they can send things direct or connect to service more directly.
Lizzie O’Leary: When you say this is a massive issue, how big?
Speaker 4: I mean, it’s difficult to estimate how large it is because the data simply does not exist. Cities regulate, say, vanishingly small proportion of this trade.
Lizzie O’Leary: Sites, remember, is that international agreement that is supposed to monitor the wildlife trade.
Speaker 4: And that means that outside a small number of countries that are no good inventories, the publicly available information that actually shows what is being imported. For a region like Europe, there is virtually no accessible data. So we know many of the animals that are in the online trade are coming from the wild, but we cannot say exactly how many because there is no mandate to make that information available. The something that is also important to note is that many of these species are very range limited. There may be only a small population or a small range area. So if collectors go that they could potentially collect out the entire wild population to the pet trade. And scientists may not know this happened until asked would they go back to check the site and they can’t.
Speaker 4: The species animal. We know that this is potentially happened to at least 21 amphibian species, but the potential for it to happen is absolutely massive. For example, we found that about 75% of the active species and trade came from just one country. So if those countries don’t legislate to protect their species, no species could go extinct because they don’t occur anywhere else on the planet.
Lizzie O’Leary: So if you have, say, some previously undescribed Peruvian tarantula and. All of those get collected and sold. That’s it. They’re gone.
Speaker 4: Yeah. I mean, you’ll have a captive population, but that would be a this is a much bigger issue than most people realize, because one of the motivations to trade is not that you want to have it before anyone else does. But like Pokemon cards, you want the coolest the newest thing. There’s actually a joke that when a new species of gecko gets described in Myanmar, two Germans gets on a plane with suitcases. And this is a real issue. We found a host of species in all of these groups that are being traded the year they get described, sometimes before they get described because the trade is mohair about it. But there are also scientists who now will not put the location of species they’ve described because they know if they do, the traders will go there to collect them.
Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, yes, tarantulas may not be the cutest, but they do need protecting.
Lizzie O’Leary: I want to understand the technological part of this a little bit. I have watched several of these arachnid unboxing. But are these. Being sold at online kind of arachnid merchandisers. Are they being sold via social media? Direct buying and selling like. What is the mechanism?
Speaker 4: All of the above. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to control. So there are some major. What started off as being reptile fairs in Germany. These are quite famous. And that partly spawned an online site through a sticker, which is one of the major ones we’ve looked at for all of our assessments. So to get an idea of how trade is changing over time and for all of these groups, it tends to be increasing in terms of the number of species being traded. But in recent years, it’s also diversified, probably in part because some types of media are trying to crack down or regulate the sale of some of these animals. And so social media has become progressively used because it’s much harder to regulate or see what’s going on.
Lizzie O’Leary: Hugh says that as the trade has grown, sellers have gotten more sophisticated. They realize that they might get caught if they advertised an endangered tarantula, for example, openly in a Facebook group.
Speaker 4: They just literally send a private message to every single person in that group saying, you’re interested in buying this.
Lizzie O’Leary: What do the platforms say about this?
Speaker 4: Most of these platforms now have mandate that they’re not allowed to have the sale of live animals. And so this is why in the last few years, you have fewer groups that are buying and selling. But actually, even if you report that often those listings, they are often those sellers do not get banned. And so it’s generally pretty ineffective. They have taken down things like tiger trade or pangolin scales, but for other animals, they just don’t seem to view it as a serious issue. For many of these species, it is a serious issue, especially of the range limited species.
Lizzie O’Leary: Some arachnid collectors like Richard, who he met at the top of the show, know about Hughes’s research and they say they only buy arachnids bred in captivity because they’re aware this is such a serious issue, but they are only a fraction of the players involved. One of the things I’m really interested in is the role that the pandemic has played and how that fits in to turbocharging this trade, if you will. What did your research show?
Speaker 4: There’s two major different dimensions that we need to note about the impact of the pandemic on trade. One of them is what’s happening in the source countries. Now, many of these source countries, if we think about places like Malaysia, will have had movement restriction orders and they will also have seen the loss of tourists.
Lizzie O’Leary: To incredibly strict sort of lockdown policies.
Speaker 4: And this means that the Rangers who would normally be protecting a national park are not working, and they are not going anywhere near the park. They may not be being paid. And this means that suddenly you have open access to areas that would normally have at least some level of safeguarding, meaning that many populations that would normally be at least a bit protected are not only vulnerable, but the people who would normally be doing the patrolling are not getting a salary and they be looking for other sources of income. So you have potentially more extraction of vulnerable species.
Speaker 4: At the same time, you have people who are stuck in their homes in a limited space and are bored. And having a house full of spiders is something that a lot of people are attracted by. So if you look at the search trends online, what we found on things like the Google Trends is that searches for things like trenches as sale all increased. People wanted to get more of these exotic, exciting pets while they were unable to leave the house. And so you have an increase of demand. You have an increase of supply. You also have an increase of access to species that might not be available only. And so you have the perfect storm in terms of endangering these species.
Lizzie O’Leary: I have to say, I, I was surprised after reading your paper and doing some Googling around just kind of my own amateur way that you could just order a box of arachnids online.
Speaker 4: Most people don’t realize it’s that accessible. They also don’t realize when they go into a pet shop that some of those animals may have come directly from the wild because it’s not something we contemplate.
Lizzie O’Leary: Perhaps not surprisingly, there isn’t much regulation of the arachnid trade. Their site is the International Treaty Group. They list some species that are protected and some you’re not supposed to trade at all. And there’s one other international body called the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It can’t regulate trade, but does designate species as endangered.
Speaker 4: But outside that, there isn’t really any overarching international legislation. There is only national legislation. And of course, that means that every country has its own rules and it can be very easy to circumnavigate them, especially given that you can’t expect a customs officer to recognize some random spider species. And at the moment, we are in a situation where we are basically relying on people who have no expertise to decide what is legal and illegal. And that means that it is very easy to launder out species under fake names, to change the numbers, to reuse sites, permits, even if you have them.
Speaker 4: And as a consequence, we have a lack of regulations, the majority of species and trade. And most of this is legal because if you only have 30 species of arachnid that have any protection under cites, you have literally about 50,000 species with no protection under CITES. And whilst most of those are not being traded, a significant proportion are.
Lizzie O’Leary: I think it’s a lot easier, frankly, for people to be concerned about a trade in beautiful parrots or in rare sloths or pangolins.
Lizzie O’Leary: Can you explain why people should care if arachnids? Thousands of arachnids are crossing borders and being traded online.
Speaker 4: Well, the easiest way to think about it is think about playing Jenga, which probably everyone has played. Now, sometimes when you pull out a block, nothing happens. Sometimes it’s the first time you pull out a block, the entire tower collapses. And sometimes when you pull out a few blocks, it collapses. When we remove species with the tub, ecosystems is doing the same thing. You’re destabilising the ecosystem and when you do it enough, that ecosystem could collapse and have fundamental, irreversible consequences. And those include things like spillover.
Speaker 4: So when we introduce invasive species, when we remove species which cause shifts in the ecosystems for a group like arachnids, the predators. So if you remove all the predators from the system, of course you’re going to get an explosion of the things that they are eating. That is going to then cause another problem like, okay, well, you’ve just killed off the plants because there’s been too many things eating them. And so you have a cascade of different influences. And so we need to think in a much more holistic way that, okay, maybe you don’t like that spider. They probably don’t like the mosquito ate even more than you didn’t like the spider. And so we need to make sure we protect the whole ecosystem and enjoy the many services it provides, some of which we enjoy. And we’re not even aware of the fact that all of this is a system. When we perturb it, we could face unintended consequences.
Lizzie O’Leary: Dr. Alice Hughes, thank you so much for your time.
Speaker 4: Most welcome.
Lizzie O’Leary: Dr. Alice Hughes is an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. If you are a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. Just head on over to Slate.com. Slash, what next? Plus to sign up. All right. We will be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.