It’s no surprise that wildlife is traded on the dark web, but live animals make up only a fraction of the entries studied over a five-year period. After analyzing over 2 million advertisements, Australian researchers discovered that most illegal plants and animals are sold in the form of illegal drugs.

While importing these products across borders without a permit might seem harmless, it could pose a threat to pets and plants.

The researchers found over 3,300 wildlife listings, 90 percent of which offered chemicals from animals, fungi, and plants. They were sold along with pornography and guns, which made up the bulk of the ads.

A street runs between suburban houses and a country house.

When Australians buy illegal wildlife products on the dark web, they risk violating Australia’s biosecurity and affecting agriculture and the environment. Source: Getty

University of Adelaide researchers found 153 species traded at 50 sites, including the Colorado River toad, whose glands secrete psychoactive toxins. It is listed as vulnerable in its native range of New Mexico.

Quick facts revealed by the study on illegal wildlife trade:

  • Most of the entries related to plants and fungi.

  • Most of the plants were sold as recreational drugs, with only a small amount intended for medicine.

  • 68 species have been proven to contain chemicals used as medicines.

  • 19 species of Psilocybe mushrooms have been identified as being sold.

  • The most common product was Jurema Preta bark, which contains a hallucinogen.

What is the problem with buying wildlife products online?

In March, Yahoo News Australia reported concerns that the legal trade in bat specimens could pose a threat to human and wildlife health, but the illegal trade has the potential to be even more harmful. Unlike bats treated with ionizing radiation, illegal products do not have such a guarantee.

This research, published in the British Ecological Society’s journal People and Nature, raised concerns that wildlife drugs are threatening populations of some species in their natural environment. Report co-author Jacob Maher told Yahoo the illegal trade is of particular concern for plants and animals that are threatened with extinction.

“If something has economic value, we have to consider that maybe people will try to extract some of it from the wild,” he said.

Close up profile of a Colorado River Toad.

The Colorado River toad’s glands secrete a psychoactive substance. Source: Getty (file)

Illegal imports of wildlife products into Australia also pose a risk of disease harm to native wildlife and agriculture. Although the trade in live specimens is rare on the dark web, it poses a greater threat to biosecurity than the trade in processed drugs – even one misstep could result in plagues of invasive species invading the country’s fragile environment.

Are wild animals only traded on the dark web?

The majority of wildlife is sold on marketplaces, messaging apps and forums listed on the open and deep web. For this reason, the authors of the study believe that the priority of law enforcement should not suddenly shift to the dark web.

“However, if conditions change in the future and it becomes more difficult to openly sell wildlife online, it remains plausible that a greater diversity of wildlife will emerge on the dark web,” said the report’s lead author, Dr. Phillip Cassey.

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