Biosecurity surveillance of e-commerce and other online platforms for illegal trade of vertebrate pests


The growth and commercialisation of the open source internet has greatly modified the environment in which pet markets and illegal wildlife traders can operate. Given the complex and cryptic nature of these online networks, the development of advanced web intelligence techniques is core to the successful disentanglement of the trade. As online trade platforms and networks grow, so too does the inadvertent risk of new vertebrate introductions and invasions, as a result of intentional or unintentional release.  

The over-arching goal of our project is to extract and tease apart the great deal of relevant online information that is available, using sophisticated techniques and analytical approaches, in order to assist biosecurity agencies and decision-makers to take early preventative action to protect the environment and economic activities (e.g., agricultural and social assets). 

Download the Digital Surveillance of Illegal Wildlife Trade Fact Sheet.

Digital Surveillance of Illegal Wildlife Trade Fact Sheet - cover image




Our project will develop novel approaches for understanding the nature of exotic pet keeping, illegal vertebrate trade in Australia, and alien species incursions.  

The objectives of the project are to develop efficient surveillance and identification tools for:  

  1. compliance of keeping and trade in alien species and early warning of new alien vertebrate incursions; and 
  2. identifying the origins of seized specimens from illegal keeping and at-large incursions

Project Leader

Associate Professor Phill Cassey
Project Team
  • A/Prof Phill Cassey – University of Adelaide 
  • A/Prof Joshua Ross – University of Adelaide
  • Dr Lewis Mitchell – University of Adelaide
  • A/Prof Jeremy Austin – University of Adelaide
  • Dr Jonathan Tyler – University of Adelaide
  • Dr Peter Caley – CSIRO 
  • Dr David Ramsey – Arthur Rylah Institute 
  • Lindell Andrews – PIRSA 
  • Dr Rebecca Johnson  – Australian Museum 
  • Talia Wittmann (technical officer) 
  • Adam Toomes (Phd Student) 
  • Katherine Hill (Honours student) 
  • Dr Oliver Stringham (Postdoc). 
Project Partners
  • University of Adelaide 
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) 
  • Arthur Rylah Institute (ARI) 
  • Primary Industries and Regions South Australia (PIRSA)  
  • Australian Museum 

The project receives funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment


February 2021 update:

Web scrapers continue to be used across a broad range of internet marketplaces and automated data processing has been successfully trailed. So far over 25 thousand internet listings have been manually cleaned for validation of software tools. Ethics approval has been granted for monitoring wildlife trade on social media. A key word search of the dark web, and analysis of illegal pet trade on the open web has commenced, illegal detections have been notified/provided to State agencies.

August 2020 update:

Daily automated monitoring of Australian e-commerce sites for alien wildlife trade is continuing, with a total of 53 custom web scrapers built so far. By focusing on a subset of this vast amount of data the project aims to cross reference advertisements of birds and reptiles with State and Territory laws to quantify the degree of illegal trade occurring online. Design is also underway for Natural language processing models to automatically detect species being traded over the internet.

The next phase of this project will focus on end-user requirements and translation of web-scraping tools into desktop applications. The volume of wildlife related trade on deep-web (user groups) and dark-web e-commerce sites is also being investigated.

February 2020 update: 

This project continues to seek input from the Environment and Invasives Committee (EIC) and State/Territory Government agencies regarding outputs from constructing and publishing web-scraping tools and outputs. A focus on stakeholder engagement will provide avenues for this project to test outputs and tools within the life of this project.

August 2019 update:

To combat the illegal trade of non-native species, this project is designing, testing and implementing automated web-scraping tools to analyse exotic live animal trade websites in Australia, United States and Europe. One finding of this project over 2018-19 is that trade in live vertebrates in the United States is a robust estimator of preference for alien vertebrates in Australia. Consistent with U.S. trade activity, the project has found, on Australian e-commerce sites, evidence for Illegal trade in non-native reptiles and grey-listed ornamental fish.

Bone and scute samples of Red-eared slider turtles have had preliminary isotopic and ablation laser analyses performed with the results being prepared for publication. A pilot study to determine specimen provenance (captive, wild, international) from analyses of stable isotope ratios has been completed and submitted for publication.

February 2019 update: 

This project has collated two decades of chordate interception records from state and commonwealth reporting agencies.  These data have been interrogated for summary statistics and general trends relating to chordate interceptions in Australia over time. The team has identified pathways and commodities associated with high levels of pre-border chordate interceptions and identified new exotic incursion threats to Australia. 

Scientific publications:

  • Deliveyne N, Cassey P, Linacre A, Delean S, Austin JJ and Young JM (2022) ‘Recovering trace reptile DNA from the illegal wildlife trade’, Forensic Science International: Animals and Environments, 2.
  • Duncan R, Cassey P, Pigot A and Blackburn T (2019) ‘A General Model for Alien Species Richness’, Biological Invasions, 21(8):2665–2677
  • García-Díaz P (2019) ‘A concise guide to developing and using quantitative models in conservation management’, Conservation Science and Practice, 1(2):11.
  • Heinrich S, Toomes A, C.R S, O.C S, M S and Cassey P (2020) ‘Strengthening protection of endemic wildlife threatened by the international pet trade: The case of the Australian shingleback lizard’, in 2021 Animal Conservation: Zoological Society of London.
  • Hill K, Nielson K, Tyler J, McInerney F, Doubleday Z, Frankham G and Cassey P (2020) ‘Pet or pest? Stable isotope methods for the early detection of invasive alien species’, EcoEvoRxiv,
  • Lassaline, C. R., Stringham, O. C., Moncayo, S., Toomes, A., & Cassey, P. (2023). Untangling the web: Dynamics of Australia’s online terrestrial invertebrate trade. Austral Entomology.
  • Lockwood J, Welbourne D, Romagosa C, Cassey P, Mandrak N, Strecker A and Keller R (2019) ‘When Pets Become Pests: The Role Of The Exotic Pet Trade In Producing Invasive Vertebrate Animals’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 17(6):323–330.
  • Sinclair JS, Lockwood JL, Hasnain S, Cassey P and Arnott SE (2020) ‘A framework for predicting which non-native individuals and species will enter, survive, and exit human-mediated transport’, Biological Invasions, 1–15.
  • Sinclair JS, Stringham OC, Udell B, Mandrak NE, Leung B, Romagosa CM and Lockwood JL (2021) ‘The International Vertebrate Pet Trade Network and Insights from US Imports of Exotic Pets’, BioScience, 71(9):977–990.
  • Stringham OC and Lockwood JL (2021) ‘Managing propagule pressure to prevent invasive species establishments: propagule size, number, and risk–release curve’, Ecological Applications, 31(4).
  • Stringham OC, Moncayo S, Hill KGW, Toomes A and Mitchell L (2021) ‘Text classification to streamline online wildlife trade analyses’, PLOS ONE, 16(7):0254007.
  • Stringham OC, Moncayo S, Thomas E, Heinrich S, Toomes A, Maher J, Hill KGW, Mitchell L, Ross JV, Shepherd CR and Cassey P (2021) ‘Dataset of seized wildlife and their intended uses’, EcoEvoRxiv,
  • Stringham, O.C., Toomes, A., Kanishka, A.M., Mitchell, L., Heinrich, S., Ross, J.V. and Cassey, P. (2021), A guide to using the Internet to monitor and quantify the wildlife trade. Conservation Biology. Accepted Author Manuscript.
  • Stringham OC, García-Díaz P, Toomes A, Mitchell L, Ross JV and Cassey P (2021) ‘Live reptile smuggling is predicted by trends in the legal exotic pet trade’, Conservation Letters, e12833.
  • Toomes A, García‐Díaz P, Stringham OC, Ross JV, Mitchell L and Cassey P (2021) ‘Drivers of the live pet trade: the role of species traits, socioeconomic attributes and regulatory systems’,
  • Toomes A, García‐Díaz P, Stringham OC, Ross JV, Mitchell L and Cassey P (2022) Drivers of the Australian native pet trade: the role of species traits, socioeconomic attributes and regulatory system, Journal of Applied Ecology
  • Toomes A, García‐Díaz P, Wittmann TA, Virtue J and Cassey P (2020) ‘New aliens in Australia: 18 years of vertebrate interceptions’, Wildlife Research, 47(1):55–67
  • Toomes A, Stringham OC, Mitchell L, Ross JV and Cassey P (2020) ‘Australia’s wish list of exotic pets: biosecurity and conservation implications of desired alien and illegal pet species’, NeoBiota, 60:43.
  • Toomes, A., Stringham, O. C., Mitchell, L., Ross, J. V., & Cassey, P. (2020). Australia’s wish list of exotic pets: biosecurity and conservation implications of desired alien and illegal pet species. NeoBiota, 60, 43.
  • Toomes, A., Moncayo, S., Stringham, OC., Lassaline, C., Wood, L., Millington, M., Drake, C., Jense, C., Allen, A., Hill, KGW., García-Díaz, P., Mitchell, L. and Cassey, P. (2023) A snapshot of online wildlife trade: Australian e-commerce trade of native and non-native pets. Biological Conservation. 282: e110040


Digital Surveillance of Illegal Wildlife Trade software –

News articles:

22/02/20 –

11/08/20 –

19/08/20 –

18/03/20 –

15/01/20 –

26/04/23 – New exposé of Australia’s exotic pet trade shows an alarming proliferation of alien, threatened and illegal species (

23/06/23 – Buying bugs and beetles, or shopping for scorpions and snails? Australia’s pet trade includes hundreds of spineless species (

08/09/23 – Exposing Australia’s online trade in pest plants – we’ve found thousands of illegal advertisements (



Understanding and Intervening in Illegal Trade in Non-Native Species Project: Final Report