What Am I Bid for This Nice Ivory?

As of a few minutes ago, you could buy a lovely carving made of African-elephant ivory on eBay for $1,100, an ivory mermaid for $300, an ivory napkin ring for $99 and more: all of the ivory is described as “pre-ban,” meaning it was “harvested” (such a benign word for ripping tusks out of slaughtered elephants) before the international community banned the sale of elephant ivory in 1989. It’s illegal to sell any ivory harvested after that, and illegal to sell any ivory, pre-ban or not, internationally. As for whether the "pre-ban" claims are all accurate, well, if you believe that perhaps I can interest you in a nice bridge we have here in New York.

The sale of questionable ivory may finally be coming to an end, however, at least on eBay. Last night, the company announced that as of January 1, 2009, it will institute a global ban on ivory sales. That was interesting timing, coming as it did on the eve of the release of a report today by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The report, Killing With Keystrokes, was based on a six-week investigation that tracked some 7,000 wildlife-product listings on 183 Web sites in 11 countries. eBay was the worst offender, responsible for almost two-thirds of the online trade in wildlife products globally.

The most common product was elephant ivory, with some 4,000 listings or 73% of all product listings that IFAW tracked. Exotic birds were second, at 20% of the listings. You can even find primates and big cats—both live animals and wildlife products, including turtle shells and leopard, cheetah, ocelot, lizard and crocodile skins.

The 1989 quasi-ban on ivory sales—grandfathering in pre-ban ivory—left a hole big enough to drive a tusk through, and animal rights groups have been charging that eBay did a lot of the driving. A year after the company said, in June 2007, that it would take down any ivory items that sellers offered to ship internationally, which is illegal, IFAW said it had found 678 ivory items for sale on eBay one week last spring, up from 440 nine months earlier. (Sellers said then, as they still do, that the ivory was obtained before the 1989 ban.)

eBay told Scientific America that it was trying to get control of illegal ivory sales on its site, but conceded that it did not verify that ivory listed for sale was harvested prior to the global ban.

By going further and instituting the total ban on ivory sales, eBay takes a big step to clean up its image. “IFAW congratulates eBay on this very important step to protect elephants,” said Barbara Cartwright of IFAW. “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.”

“Internet dealers profit off of every piece of elephant ivory sold on their Web sites, and every piece of that ivory came from a dead elephant,” said Jeff Flocken, Director of IFAW’s Washington office. Every year, more than 20,000 elephants are illegally slaughtered in Africa and Asia for ivory. And as we reported earlier this year, an alarming amount of illegal trade in wildlife is being carried out not only by the usual criminal gangs but also by terrorist groups such as the Janjaweed, responsible for the genocide in Darfur. The least companies like ebay can do is not make it ridiculously easy for them to move the goods.