I first reported that eBay was instituting a global ban on ivory sales on its website back in October. Earlier today, The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) issued a press release talking about the ban and how the organization worked closely with eBay to make it happen. I received a lot of emails and comments regarding the news so when I heard that IFAW was issuing a press release this week, I thought it would be great to get some time to discuss it with Barbara Cartwright, IFAW Campaign Manager. What follows is the transcript of her answers to my questions over this past weekend. Thanks again to Barbara for taking the time and for sharing her thoughts, and the point of view of the IFAW, here with Ink readers.
1) IFAW has been studying the on-line trade of endangered species for some time now. What prompted your interest in this issue, and what have you found?
IFAW has been fighting the illegal wildlife trade for about thirty years, using investigations, education, and advocacy to better understand and fight this damaging trade. Over the past ten or so years, we became increasingly concerned about the way the Internet could be used to facilitate the illegal wildlife trade. The web can link buyers and sellers through a lucrative and relatively risk-free channel for illegal trade. Current national laws aimed at regulating wildlife trade have not kept pace with the growth of Internet trade. And even where laws exist, enforcement is often inadequate or simply not focused on trafficking in wildlife.
In an effort to combat this trade, IFAW began actively monitoring common internet trade sites in 2004. We have published 4 reports that revealed shockingly high numbers of wildlife products traded daily on the web. IFAW’s most recent report, Killing With Keystrokes, detailed the results of an intensive investigation undertaken, in part, to better understand the scope and scale of the illegal wildlife trade. In the course of just six weeks, we were astonished to find more than 7,000 wild animals and animal products for sale online. This figure was all the more alarming because the survey was restricted only to trade in CITES Appendix 1 protected species —and even within this narrow group we only looked at primates, elephant, reptiles, large wild cats, rhinoceros, and birds.
2) Why is the ivory trade a problem for elephants when it is legal?
First, it is important to state that the ivory trade has been banned internationally since 1989 under Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (or “CITES”). It was made illegal after a decades long crisis in which elephants, slaughtered for their tusks, were driven towards extinction. With the proper permits, CITES allowed for the sale of antique ivory that was obtained before the convention came into place. Sadly, in 1997, and again in 2008, the total ban was further diluted, allowing a resumption of limited commercial trade in elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe via two stockpile sales.
In effect, the commercial trade in ivory has created a tragic situation for elephant populations with many thousands being killed annually for their tusks. Since it is impossible for the human eye to distinguish between legal and illegal ivory, outlaws have taken advantage of the “loophole” of legal sales to target weakly patrolled elephant habitats to smuggle and launder ivory from poached elephants into legal inventories.
But whether the ivory was obtained legally or illegally, it comes at the price of more dead elephants – any trade in ivory drives more poaching. If elephants in Africa and Asia are to have a chance of survival, the trade in ivory must be completely prohibited both domestically and internationally.
3) Before researching more about this, I thought that endangered species were protected by national and international laws. Is this not that case? What’s the state of play with the world’s endangered species?
The state of play is actually pretty grim. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (or “IUCN”) estimates that one in four mammals is at risk of disappearing forever. Despite this unbelievably bleak reality, current international and national laws are too patchy, complex and ineffective to afford endangered species sufficient protection. Threats to species survival include habitat loss and degradation, disease, invasive species, new threats posed by climate change – and of course, unsustainable trade.
What protections do endangered species have? There are a variety of international, national, regional or local laws. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement between member governments that aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES protected species are ranked in three groups depending on the level of protection needed. In the United States, we have the Endangered Species Act (or “ESA”), a federal law which was created to provide for the conservation of imperiled wildlife. Species qualify for protection under the ESA if they are placed on the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. Another often cited global source to determine the level of endangerment of a species is the “Red List” of species at risk which is produced by the IUCN. Despite its impressive sounding name, the “Red List”, does not offer any legal protection.
All these lists and protections, and other ones too, are only as good as the scientific data they are based on and their monitoring and enforcement capabilities — and most offer numerous loopholes that allow endangered species to still be legally killed if certain requirements are met. So while some protections are better than none, the system is still far
4) IFAW was one of a handful of groups that felt passionately that eBay needed to ban the sale of ivory on our sites, including in the US. Given that the sale of ivory is arguably legal in the US, what led you to this conclusion?
In order to comply with CITES, the sale of ivory in the U.S. — and all other CITES member countries — is legal only under very specific circumstances. However, the laws that individual countries have created to comply with CITES have ended up being complex and filled with loopholes and enforcement challenges. For example, in the US, ivory sellers must either have ivory that is antique (which can be proven by certification that it is over 100 years old), or they must be in legal possession of the ivory at the time of the sale (which means the ivory must have been taken from the wild before the elephant was listed as protected in the U.S. — a date which varies depending on whether it was taken from an African or Asian elephant). Verifying this over the Internet is nearly impossible as the buyer and seller never actually meet and the transactions are by nature anonymous and unmonitored. Globally, many of these ivory laws were written prior to the invention of the Internet, and with enough ambiguity, loopholes, and opportunities for laundering illegal ivory under the guise of legal ivory, that meaningful enforcement efforts to control the sale of ivory over the Internet are difficult if not impossible. IFAW’s six week investigation of 185 websites found over 5,000 pieces of ivory being sold over the Web with little or no proof of legality. While in the background over 20,000 elephants are still being poached annually in the wild for their ivory. IFAW and other conservation groups feel that the only way to successfully stop the Internet from contributing to this brutal trade is a complete ban of ivory on th Web. eBay showed great leadership in taking this step, and we hope that other buyer-seller sites will follow.
5) We’ve focused on animal ivory here since that’s the focus of eBay’s ban. But what other challenges to endangered species do you see being posed by on-line commerce?
Over the five years that we have been researching the illegal trade in wildlife on the web elephant ivory has remained the biggest problem on publicly accessible websites. Our most recent investigation showed that elephant ivory dominated the products investigated comprising 73% of the items tracked. But that should not overshadow all the other species that are being sold daily. One of the most surprising findings of our investigation was the thriving market for live exotic birds, which was responsible for 20% of the trade we tracked. This market not only contributes to species endangerment, but also untold suffering as live animals are packaged for smuggling, most often across international borders, in dismal containers, with many dying in transit for every one that survives.
6) Now that eBay’s ban is about to go into effect, what’s next for your overall campaign to eliminate the illegal wildlife trade on-line?
In order to further protect wildlife from on-line illegal trade, all websites should ban the sale of endangered and threatened species, as eBay has done. The ban of ivory on eBay is a momentous step forward to protect elephants. We will continue to encourage other sites to follow eBay’s lead. Meanwhile, it is critical to improve the myriad of laws and enforcement that govern the illegal trade both on-line and on-the-ground, therefore IFAW works on an on-going basis with international and national authorities such as Interpol, CITES and USFWS to both formally and informally provide information and data on the illegal wildlife trade. Finally, IFAW will continue to monitor and investigate the illegal trade in wildlife on the web and educate the public about the inherent cruelty and unsustainable nature of this trade.