Endangered insects and spiders being sold illegally on eBay and Amazon, study shows

ITHACA, N.Y. — You can find anything on eBay and Amazon — including rare and endangered insects that are illegal to sell. A new study from Cornell University researchers finds that exotic or threatened insects and spiders can be easily purchased online since there’s no adequate oversight.

Researchers found a number of these creepy crawlers, including tarantulas, being sold illegally online. John Losey, the study’s lead author and a professor of entomology at Cornell, says the study started as a project for his Insect Conservation Biology course. The study includes 18 student co-authors who were undergraduates in 2019 when the research was done.

“We surveyed the web to determine if there were species available for sale that are rare, threatened, or for which commerce is in some way regulated,” says Losey in a university release. “As they get rarer and rarer, they become more and more valuable to collectors, and then the amount of collecting and sale, if not done sustainably, has greater impact on those species.”

‘Astonishing how easily endangered species openly sold online’

Researchers broadly searched the internet and after gathering leads, they formalized its process and divided searches across several platforms, including Amazon, eBay, Etsy and Alibaba, among others. They then narrowed their search on vulnerable insect and spider species found on the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and the U.S. Endangered Species List.

During their online sale searches, researchers found 79 species listed across the three lists, including seven species on the Red List, which names just the critically endangered insects. Among the insects for sale were a Gooty sapphire tarantula for $232.50 and a Cyprus beetle for $1,100 on eBay. A rare and endangered butterfly, the Luzon peacock swallowtail, was found illegally for sale on Amazon for around $110. The most expensive insect was a birdwing butterfly species named Ornithoptera allotted, which is listed on CITES Appendix 2, for $3,850 on eBay.

“It was really astonishing how easily endangered species are openly being sold online,” says Juan Pablo Jordan, a student co-author who is now a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “It was also surprising how accessible the [endangered species] listings are to find and the complacency of the sale platforms that are essentially supporting the trade of at-risk species that are protected by law.”

Calls for better tracking of insects, spider sales online

Researchers also found species that provide ecological services for sale, including ladybugs released for pest control and pollinators. If these insects are diseased or have the wrong strain, they could impact larger wild populations and have harmful effects on the services they provide.

“Hopefully, our findings will lead to better enforcement of the illegal online sale of rare insects and protect those species in the wild,” notes study senior co-author Paul Curtis, extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Their findings have been shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces illegal trade of species. However, the agency lacks the resources to monitor the commerce. Losey hopes to continue the project with student-specialists who monitor the web for illegal sales. Losey believe insects that provide services should be considered “livestock,” so their unregulated sale could be monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The study is published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

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