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Is EBay Doing Enough to Stop Illegal Ivory Sales on Its Site?

Activists find a "disturbing" increase of illegal ivory items for sale a year after the online site vowed a crackdown



Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Scott Hirko

An animal welfare group charges that eBay sales of ivory are brisker than ever a year after the online marketplace promised to restrict the sale of products made from animal teeth and tusks—many of which come from endangered species. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), based in Washington, D.C., is urging eBay to ban—not simply restrict—all such sales on its Web market.

EBay in June 2007 said that it would take down any ivory products from its eBay.com site that offered international shipping, and make sellers aware that to be permitted to sell ivory within their own country, they may need permission from their government (in this U.S., this would fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Despite this warning, however, EBay does not require such permission for items to be listed—it merely cautions sellers that permission may be required for the sale to be legal.

This policy brought eBay in alignment with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement first made by 80 countries—including the U.S., China, England, and France—in March 1973 to ensure that international trade of items made from wild animals and plants would not threaten their survival (CITES now includes 172 members). CITES in 1989 banned the sale of ivory and the slaughter of Asian (elephas maximus) and African (loxodonta africana) elephants for their trademark tusks in the wake of dwindling populations of the mighty giants on both continents at the hands of greedy poachers. Under CITES, the domestic sale of ivory harvested prior to the ban, however, is still permitted. The agreement does not specify penalties for those who violate the ivory ban, instead leaving it up to individual governments to determine punishment. In the U.S., penalties can be doled out under regulations such as the Department of the Interior's Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 and the African Elephant Conservation Act, which threatens a year in prison and / or fines of up to $5,000 for each violation.

But IFAW's Washington, D.C.–office director Jeff Flocken says that instead of dipping, the number of ivory items tracked on eBay.com has increased. He says that IFAW found 678 items for sale at the site during a week last month, up from 440 items found during a week of monitoring nine months earlier. Sellers of much of this merchandise claim it was made before the CITES ban took effect.

EBay spokeswoman Kim Rubey says the company is trying to get a handle on the problem, but acknowledged that policing the Web is tricky, in part because of the large volume of daily transactions flowing over eBay.com. She admits that the company does not inspect ivory sold via its site to ensure that it was harvested prior to the CITES ban. It does, however, look for ivory listings that offer to ship internationally (a CITES violation) and will either remove the listings or notify local or national law enforcement (such as Fish and Wildlife in the U.S.), depending on the situation, Rubey says. EBay to some degree puts the onus on the sellers to police themselves, explicitly stating on its site that: "By listing your ivory item on eBay, you are certifying that you legally possess the item and are legally able to sell it in the United States."

A basic search today of "elephant ivory" on the company's site turned up 306 such trinkets for sale. Some of the online peddlers claim in their online advertisements the ivory they're selling is "antique," meaning it is more than 100 years old and therefore not subject to the ban; others with newer ivory items say they obtained them before the 1989 ban took effect, although many do not offer proof of these claims.

In many instances, eBay, IFAW and Fish and Wildlife do not appear to be coordinating closely to crack down on illegal ivory sales. Fish and Wildlife, which enforces federal U.S. laws and regulations governing the sale of ivory as well as the CITES ban, distances itself from eBay's policies, noting in an e-mailed statement: "While eBay may have consulted the Service on this issue, the Service did not officially endorse the text used by eBay."

IFAW says it tracks elephant ivory sold on eBay by typing words such as "elephant" and "ivory" into eBay's search engine. Although it is not an exact science, the search engine provides a general idea of the amount of ivory for sale on the site, IFAW program manager Paul Todd says. "We do find what we believe are legal transactions because the seller lists Fish and Wildlife Service approval or documentation that the ivory is antique," Todd says. Fish and Wildlife, however, says, "The Service does not issue permits to authorize the sale of ivory. If such a sale is legal (meaning the ivory predates the ban and is sold domestically), a permit is not required."

The only way around such confusion as to whether illegal ivory is being sold on eBay.com is to ban all ivory sales, says Flocken, who adds that IFAW met with eBay officials in October to air its concerns. "EBay let us know they are in the business of broadening trade, not restricting it," he says. "But our stance is that they're not in the business of promoting extinction. We are asking them to go beyond the legal question to do what is morally right."

He says that eBay is only one of what is believed to be many sites on the Internet where ivory is sold, threatening to perpetuate rather than stop the illegal killing of declining pachyderm populations for their tusks. A 2007 University of Washington in Seattle study estimates that as many as 23,000 African elephants were slaughtered in 2006 alone and that Asian demand for ivory is undermining the 1989 ban.

IFAW is hoping that eBay will ban all ivory sales and send a message to potential sellers and to other online marketplaces. IFAW staffers and contractors currently are monitoring at least 15 different Web sites in 13 different countries—and Flocken says the group hopes to expand its monitoring operations to include other popular venues, including Amazon.com and Craig's List. "Our investigators," Flocken says, "are delving into the dark side of the Internet to see what they can uncover."

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