During my internship at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), I worked on a project developing an early warning detection tool for wildlife trade using online search trends. People’s online searches of different species were found to be correlated with imports of those species. The idea is that people will research what they want to buy online before making a purchase. As technology advances, people selling wildlife and wildlife products have turned to using websites to advertise and sell their products rather than using physical markets.

I looked at 6 countries including the United States, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and Germany. The online search terms of 60,000 vertebrate species were tracked within these countries. After the graphs were created, I was able to note the interesting patterns I found within each country and anything that seemed unusual.

During my research, I learned a lot about wildlife trade. I discovered the diverse cultural beliefs, especially in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia and what they believed animals could be used for, such as medicinal products. I also learned about how international laws work and all the gray lines involved. I found out that illegal wildlife trade is a high reward crime with little punishment, and that is why many people get involved with it.

For example, airports such as JFK in New York, often see the same people coming through smuggling wildlife, yet they are rarely punished with more than a “slap on the wrist.” It can be difficult for countries to implement international laws effectively. There are even more misunderstandings because if a species is found in trade and it is CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed in some countries and not in others, it is difficult to tell if it is or isn’t legal. Additionally, some species may be legal to sell if they are captive bred, but illegal to sell if they are wild caught. So, many people can pass off wild caught species as captive bred.

My biggest advice for future interns would be to talk to as many people within the organization as possible. Everyone has advice to offer, and everyone has taken a different path in life to get where they are today. It was interesting to hear everyone’s path and get advice for my own. The people there are so friendly and willing to help, so I would say to ask as many questions as come to mind, and learn as much as you can while you are there. 


Leah Cawthorne