Citing a new report that found that eBay is greatly exacerbating the black market trade in elephant tusks, the online auction site announced Monday that it will ban all commerce in ivory, including most antiques, starting January 1, 2009.
The announcement came ahead of a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare that over a six-week period tracked more than 7,000 posts offering body parts of protected wildlife, including pelts, teeth, bones, horns, and feathers. The report, titled "Killing with Keystrokes" [PDF], found that the United States was responsible for more than 70 percent of the trade, an amount nearly 10 times more than the two countries with the next highest volume, Great Britain and China. Nearly three-fourths of the posts were for ivory products.
By far, the single largest seller was eBay, with 73 percent of the total posts tracked on US websites.
The online auctioneer tried a limited ban on ivory last year, blocking all cross-border sales. According to eBay's official blog, that ban attempted "to balance the protection of endangered and protected species while also providing a way for sellers to offer legitimate ivory products legally allowed for sale within domestic markets."
But the illicit ivory sales continued. "[G]iven the complexities of the global ivory trade, and the distinct and unique characteristics of the eBay Marketplace," says eBay's blog , "the sale of any ivory on our site continued to be a concern within the company and among stakeholders."
Exceptions for some items with small amounts of ivory, such as pianos, will be made, though the items must have been made before 1900.
Items that have a large amount of ivory, regardless of their age, will not be permitted for sale. These would include chess sets and jewelry.
The New York Times notes that the ban – which covers all types of ivory including that which comes from elephants, hippopotamuses, walruses, and narwhals – may, like many attempts to police online activity, be difficult to enforce.
The ban may be slow to take effect, suggested Crawford Allan, the North American regional director of Traffic, a subsidiary of the World Wildlife Fund that tracks illegal trade in wildlife.
“It’s not that they are going to turn on a switch and it’s going to end,” Mr. Allan said, pointing out that merchants need only avoid calling their wares “ivory” or using the word “elephant” to avoid automatic filtering. EBay, he said, “does find it difficult to police their own site.”
But at least, he said, “you can’t have people arguing ‘This isn’t elephant ivory.’ ”
The ban, Mr. Allan said, “is the ultimate answer” to that defense.
Despite its limitations, conservation groups – including the one that authored the report – applauded eBay's move.
“IFAW congratulates eBay on this very important step to protect elephants. With these findings and eBay’s leadership, there is no doubt left that all Internet dealers need to take responsibility for their impact on endangered species by enacting and enforcing a ban on all online wildlife trade. eBay has set the standard for protecting elephants, now governments and other online dealers need to follow their example,” said Barbara Cartwright, IFAW Campaigns Manager.
Also hailing eBay's decision was the Humane Society of the United States.
Each year, more than 20,000 elephants are slaughtered for their tusks, part of a black market that the IFAW says rivals the trade in illegal drugs and weapons. In addition to pushing the animals to the brink of extinction in many countries, the poaching has also had the effect of elephant species adapting by evolving smaller tusks.