Ebay Bans Ivory Sales Amid Conservation Concerns

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 21, 2008
Ebay announced yesterday a global ban on sales of ivory products, a day before a conservation group issued a report showing that the online auction site is helping to fuel illegal trade in wildlife products.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recently conducted a three-month-long investigation, carried out simultaneously in 11 countries, that monitored 183 public Web sites for traffic in endangered species.

"We were stunned [with the findings]," said IFAW spokesperson Jeff Flocken. "We knew that there was a lot of trade going on, but we were very surprised how prevalent it really was out there."

The group found more than 7,000 illicit online auctions, advertisements, and communiqués dealing with both live animals and wildlife products.

Of the total trade volume tracked on U.S. Web sites, 73 percent occurred on eBay. Elephant ivory—ranging from full tusks to trinkets—accounted for the bulk of the site's wildlife offerings.

"While we realize a certain percentage of the trade is coming from individuals who inherited a piece of jewelry or statue, that's not the only offender," Flocken said. "There are hardcore dealers who are using eBay to get the ivory out there illegally."

Ebay spokesperson Nichola Sharpe said the company has actively worked with animal-welfare groups in recent years to stop illegal sales of ivory on the site.

The policy change, which goes into effect in January, has been in the works for months, Sharpe said.

"We really felt [ivory] was becoming far too complex to actually enforce and also to clarify whether an item is illegal or not, so we just felt that … a global ban across all of the [39] eBay sites would be easier," she said.

As far the IFAW report, Sharpe said the company was made aware of it three weeks ago and has requested a copy so they can investigate the claims.

Buyer Beware

Wildlife experts estimate that 20,000 African elephants—mostly in Cameroon, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—are killed each year for their tusks and meat, a lucrative byproduct of the illegal ivory trade.

(See photos of an elephant massacre revealed during flights over Chad in 2006.)

Governments around the globe have taken regulatory steps to stop the slaughter.

In 1989 the United Nations-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement, of which the U.S. is a member, banned commercial trade in ivory.

Several U.S. federal and state laws also regulate ivory import, export, sale, and possession.

Under current policies, eBay has been educating its users by posting links to international and federal regulations surrounding the ivory trade.

Even so, some users seem confused by the regulations or are simply ignoring them.

For example, one auction says that "world class collectors and dealers" Kent and Charles Davis of the Davis Gallery in New Orleans brought back from Africa an antique tribal horn made from elephant ivory.

The item is posted for sale with a starting bid of U.S. $850.

"As you may know, antique ivory is not allowed into the country any longer, so [it's] very rare," the description notes.

In fact, antique ivory—pieces that are a hundred years or older—is legal to import to the U.S. as long as the handler gets a permit from CITES.

The description of the African horn does not tell potential buyers the item's age or when it entered the country, and an email to the seller asking for this information went unanswered as of press time.

Under eBay's new rules, any item, regardless of age, that is made mostly of ivory can no longer be sold on the site.

Other items that contain a small amount of ivory, such as pieces with inlay or minor parts, are OK to sell if they are antiques, which eBay defines as being pre-1900.

Ivory Crackdown

In general, the report found that users on eBay and other sites that trade in ivory products suffer from confusion over an item's provenance.

The group also says that abuses in virtual markets mostly stem from weak or absent enforcement, which opens the door to unscrupulous sellers.

(Related: "China Cracks Down on Illegal Online Wildlife Trade" [February 29, 2008].)

In the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is the federal agency tasked with enforcing the complex set of laws surrounding the sale and possession of ivory.

As e-commerce has expanded in recent years, so too has the amount of illegal ivory offered for sale online, noted FWS senior special agent Neil Mendelsohn.

"This is definitely something that's on our radar screen, and we're pursuing these cases actively," he said.

In August an international investigation that included FWS agents resulted in an art dealer being sentenced to 60 months in prison and fined $100,000 for illegally smuggling ivory into the United States.

A concerned citizen had tipped off agents after noticing an online advertisement for endangered species parts.

During the year-long investigation, agents made purchases of illegal ivory, including raw tusks, derived from at least 21 African elephants and valued at around $160,000.

The items were concealed inside pottery by the seller, labeled as art, and then sent by international courier from Africa to Canada.

The goods were then shipped to the United States and into the hands of agents posing as customers.

(Related: "U.S. One of Largest Ivory Markets, New Study Says" [May 5, 2008].)

TRAFFIC International, a wildlife-trade monitoring network, said that worldwide there's an average of three ivory seizures a day, with large-scale finds of a ton or more nearly doubling within the last eight years.

"Government authorities must ensure that wildlife trade on the Internet conforms to the same regulations as wildlife in physical markets," said Joyce Wu, program officer for TRAFFIC in East Asia.

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