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Protected Species, Animal Products for Sale Online

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2005
 
Purebred pets often come with a hefty price tag, but the value
skyrockets when the animal for sale is an endangered species.

Now, the Internet has opened up a bustling venue for illegal trade in live gorillas, baboons, and
other protected species, according to a new report.

The report, released last week by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), revealed that thousands of wild animals and animal parts—from live chimpanzees to whole elephant tusks—are illegally offered for sale online every day.

The result is a cyber black market where the future of the world's rarest animals is being traded away, said Phyllis Campbell-McRae, director of IFAW in the United Kingdom.

Poachers specifically target many wild animals to meet the demands of wealthy consumers in foreign countries or to be sold as pets, she says.

"Each one of us has a responsibility to stop buying and selling wild animals and wildlife products," Campbell-McRae said. "Trade in wildlife is driven by consumer demand. So when the buying stops, the killing will too."

During a one-week period in January the IFWA discovered unlawful offerings such as a gorilla on sale for $8,100 (U.S.) and chimps dressed as dolls for $60,000 (U.S.) each.

The conservation nonprofit says the findings represent only a small fraction of the total online trade, because the investigation only looked at sales of live primates and products made from elephants, tortoise shells, reptiles, and wild cats.

Several Web sites and one print publication, all of which run classified advertisments listing live wild animals for sale, either declined or did not respond to an interview request.

Legal Wrangling

Not all buyers and sellers knowingly break the law.

IFAW's investigation found that information posted on sellers' Web sites regarding wildlife trade restrictions is either nonexistent or inadequate.

Until such information is made more accessible to online shoppers, IFAW believes people will unwittingly continue to trade illegally or may find it easier to ignore the rules.

In the United States the Endangered Species Act prohibits the interstate and international sale of a listed species, whether alive or dead and in part or product form.

The laws regulating products from internationally protected animals are more complex. For example, agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have 18 pages of policy they refer to on ivory products alone.

Experts from conservation groups and law enforcement agencies agree that the administrators of some Web sites don't seem to be as careful as they could be when policing their listings for illegal activity.

The popular auction site eBay, however, informs users about product regulations and removes listings of illegal items within 24 hours of notification.

EBay spokesman Hani Durzy said the company is continually looking at ways to adjust policies so its 157 million registered users worldwide comply with the law.

"If we can initiate polices that continue to allow people to engage in the free trade of items but, at the same time, make it easier for them to ensure they are not doing anything illegal, then we'll do that," he said.

Of the five million new auctions posted on eBay daily, only a small fraction involve wildlife products, such as stuffed birds and the pelts and skins of some animals, Durzy said. And the site prohibits the sale of live animals.

IFAW spokesman Chris Cutter said his organization has been working with eBay. He said the company will soon add the term "wildlife and wildlife products" to its "Report This" drop-down menu, making it easier to report suspicious items and for the site's filters to react accordingly.

Undercover Sting

Even with sites like eBay taking proactive steps to stop the illegal trade of wildlife products, some people still knowingly break the law.

Ed Grace works undercover on wildlife cyber crimes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement. The veteran agent said he has noticed an increase in the last five years of illegal products and animals being sold online, although the agency does not keep track of how many cases it works on each year.

Because of the agency's small staff size, the team gives priority focus to people using the Internet to conduct repeated large scale transactions.

"If we can go after the people that are causing the demand, we think we can slow the problem down," Grace said.

During an undercover operation in 2002, Grace was able to buy several rugs made of pelts from endangered species from a man in New York who posted to a taxidermy-enthusiasts Web site.

One of the rugs, made from five rare snow leopards, was purchased for $25,000 (U.S.).

The seller has since pled guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

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