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Bought an otter on Facebook? You may have trafficked in endangered wildlife

Live otters, gibbons and bears have all been found for sale in Malaysian Facebook groups, according to a report by wildlife watchdog Traffic.

Sun bears are among the native species found on sale via Facebook in Malaysia.
Joe McDonald/Corbis

Frequent users of Facebook will be accustomed to seeing pictures of animals pop up from time to time in their Home feeds. But some Facebook users in Malaysia are not just posting pictures of animals out of admiration -- they're using the social network to illegally sell them.

Live sun bears, gibbons and otters are among the animals being traded through closed Facebook groups, according to a report published on Thursday by Traffic, an eco-minded nongovernmental organization that monitors the trade in wildlife.

The majority of social-media users stick to a site's rules, but Facebook and other social networks still find themselves in never-ending games of Whac-A-Mole with the handful of people who use them for their own nefarious and often illegal purposes. Facebook's troubles with extremists are well documented, but Traffic's report shows that other types of criminal activity are also taking place on the site.

"We are committed to working with Traffic to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Malaysia," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Facebook does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our terms of service."

Despite round-the-clock monitoring for illegal activity, things still slip through Facebook's net. Traffic researchers spent just half an hour monitoring 14 Facebook groups over the five months and found more than 300 animals, all thought to be wild, for sale. The groups were mostly closed and boasted a joint total of 68,000 members. The 106 identified sellers had made little attempt to hide their activities, the report said.

Birds and reptiles made up the majority of animals on sale, but there were also many mammals on the species list, including the critically endangered binturong -- otherwise known as the bearcat.

More than 60 percent of the advertised animals were native species being sold within the country, indicating demand among Malaysians to keep local wildlife as pets. Traffic believes the sale of such creatures is an entirely new phenomenon given that the country does not have an open wildlife market.

"The rise of social media appears to have enabled the creation of a thriving marketplace for wild animals as pets where one previously didn't exist in Malaysia," said Kanitha Krishnasamy, programme manager for Traffic in Southeast Asia and a co-author of the report.

Traffic said 25 of the 69 nonnative species for sale were covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The treaty limits or forbids the commercial trading of certain animals and plants. Nearly half the native species for sale were illegal to sell under Malaysia's Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

Facebook did not respond to a request for additional comment.