On Monday, eBay announced that it will ban all online auctions of elephant ivory beginning in January. The decision came partly in response to a new investigation conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which found numerous examples of legally dubious ivory sales on the auction site. IFAW argues that in online sales it's impossible to distinguish between legal ivory (antique pieces that predate strict trade treaties on endangered species) and modern, illicit ivory harvested by poachers.
While conservation groups are delighted by eBay's resolution, IFAW's investigation found evidence of online trafficking in many other critically endangered species, suggesting that the eBay victory was just the first skirmish in what will be a long, drawn-out fight.
Text: Eliza Strickland
The listing went up on eBay last June: a pair of African elephant tusks weighing 123 pounds were for sale, with no documentation as to their origin or age--and somewhere in an elephant graveyard on the Serengeti, a pile of elephant bones must have turned over in their grave.
The tusks, which eventually sold for over $21,000, were just one of the many troubling items for sale on the online auction site, according to . The nonprofit group conducted a three-month investigation into online sales of endangered animals, and tracked over 7,000 sales of both animal products and live animals, all available for purchase with just a few mouse clicks.
"Poaching is rising again in Africa, to the point where we have 20,000 elephants being killed annually just for the illegal trade," says Peter Pueschel, IFAW's Wildlife Trade Program Manager. "We see rangers risking their lives to keep these animals from being killed for the illegal trade. When you have these loopholes that allow for some trade in these products, that covers the illegal market. That's why I believe a complete ban is the only responsible approach."
The IFAW investigation focused on species that are in immediate danger of extinction, whose sales are banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The off-limits bird species include yellow-headed Amazon parrots, Goffin's cockatoos, and scarlet macaws, all of which were openly offered for sale on websites around the world; some of these birds can fetch more than $1,000 each. Sales of threatened birds comprised about 20 percent of all online endangered species sales that IFAW tracked.
While elephant ivory and exotic birds comprised the bulk of online sales, about seven percent of listings featured other extremely rare species. The big cats were represented, with pelts from tigers, leopards, ocelots, and jaguars popping up on eBay and on other sites.
In perhaps the most ironic listing of all, a Chinese auction site listed a polar bear skin rug that sold for US $25,825. The seller noted that the pelt was "imported from Canada, and it's the last chance to have such a polar bear skin since the species is endangered due to the global warming."
Russia, meanwhile, has some of the most brazen violations. One Web site continues to sell live animals ranging from lion cubs to brown bears, while an investigator who asked another seller if he could document the legality of his products replied that he had "no papers since everything is smuggled."
IFAW's Peter Pueschel says these examples just hint at the true extent of the online marketplace, as the group's investigation only tracked Web sites open to the public. Pueschler says that traffickers probably conduct most of their business on password-protected sites: "Probably a lot of the consciously criminal deals are being done behind closed doors," he says.