That exquisite little carved-ivory elephant for sale on eBay is described as a Chinese antique. Then again, it could be an illegal piece of tusk from an African elephant shot last year.
That's the quandary Internet buyers of "antique ivory" face.
While the world continues to make strides in slowing the supply of ivory from illegally slaughtered elephants - including a major agreement this week - demand for illegal ivory is mushrooming on the Internet.
The resurgent problem is worldwide, as highlighted by seizures of 5,000 ivory pieces this year in Thailand and a record seven tons of ivory confiscated in Singapore in 2002.
The high number of seizures in the United States is a big factor, too, according to a recent report.
"We found that the United States has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most active ivory markets in the world," says Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the IUCN-The World Conservation Union.
Between 1995 and 2002, the US had five times as many seizures of illegal ivory as any other nation, according to the report, the first detailed look at the US ivory market since the 1989 ban on the commercial ivory trade. Much of that ivory is confiscated from US tourists returning from overseas. But a growing proportion is ordered over the Internet. Some 1,000 ivory items are offered every week on eBay, some of which may be illegal, TRAFFIC found.
Masquerading as Internet buyers, TRAFFIC investigators found that sellers of ivory on Internet "stores" regularly ship elephant ivory to the US via express-delivery services - often falsely labeling the shipment with such euphemisms as "bone carving."
In March, a Canadian woman living in the US was indicted for "aiding and abetting" the smuggling of illegal ivory. As the operator of several Internet-based wildlife and African art businesses, she is charged with smuggling raw ivory and tusks into the US from Cameroon. One shipment of two elephant tusks came in a package labeled as containing wood and terra cotta sculptures, prosecutors say.
One reason the US totals are so high: It probably has the best law-enforcement system for inspecting and catching incoming illegal ivory, the report says. In 2002, the most recent data, the nation seized more than 1,100 pieces of ivory.
On the other hand, such totals represent only a small part of the total volume, since most illegal ivory succeeds in making its way undetected into the US, Mr. Habel says. There are only 230 special agents to do investigations, and just 100 wildlife inspectors staff American ports of entry.
"Our thin green line is stretched so thin that if we add in the surge in Internet sales, it's far more than we can handle," says Patricia Fisher, spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. "Our people are working really hard to stop what comes in illegally, but we don't have manpower to handle the Internet traffic, too."
Much of the problem stems from ignorance.
"Don't bring home raw ivory or ivory jewelry, carvings, or figurines made from the tusks of either African or Asian elephants. Avoid raw or carved ivory from the teeth or tusks of whales, walruses, narwhals, and seals," advises the Fish and Wildlife Service website.
Not all trade in ivory is illegal. After the 1989 ban, the US decided that ivory already circulating prior to the ban could continue to be imported. From 1995 to 2002, the nation legally imported more than 32,500 items - from tusks to jewelry to piano keys - mostly from Britain.
It's also legal to buy and sell ivory domestically - within countries. But this provision, combined with the recent surge in Internet sales, is providing a new channel for illegal ivory, activists say.
The impact has been especially harsh on African elephants, the report says. Though their population has stabilized or grown in a few countries, in many others, elephants are still being poached at a fast clip, researchers say.
In the years preceding the ban, up to 100,000 elephants were killed annually and about half the global population was wiped out.
Since the ban took effect, the number of elephants has still declined, although more slowly. Illegal ivory markets today still require 4,000 to 12,000 dead elephants a year to supply them, Habel says.
An estimated 400,000 African elephants remained as of 2002. Most are a savannah variety, living, wandering, and being counted in plain sight.
But researchers are most concerned about the more elusive forest elephant - perhaps a third of the entire population in Africa - which hides in dense forest and bush.
"We think the forest elephants are being disproportionately killed, with their carcasses remaining hidden in the forest," says Melissa Groo, a Cornell University researcher who, with Katy Payne, runs the Elephant Listening Project. "We're afraid that when we discover just how many have been wiped out it will be too late to reverse it. So, yes, we're worried about the ivory trade."
Help may be on the way. In a major breakthrough Monday, the 166-member nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species approved a plan for every African country that has a domestic ivory market to either strictly control its domestic ivory market - or shut it down. The convention enacted the 1989 international ban.
Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among at least 36 countries with domestic elephants that are climbing on board to police their own ivory markets, the WWF reports.
"This is a big victory," Habel says.
Despite an international ban on selling elephant tusks, the illegal ivory trade continues to thrive. For example:
• In 2002, Singapore seized seven tons of ivory, the largest seizure of its kind.
• A raid of 13 hotels in Thailand this year resulted in the seizure of more than 5,000 ivory pieces.
• Between 1995 and 2002, the United States had the most illegal ivory seizures. More than 8,000 pieces were confiscated during that time.