Animals & Money: eBay, ivory, and the animal trade

This week eBay announced it would stop selling ivory products -- even antiques. The idea is to make sure there's less of a viable market for ivory -- and help cut the demand that leads to more elephant killing.

The decision comes just before the International Fund for Animal Welfare issued a report Killing with Keystrokes that shows how illegal trade in animals and animal parts goes on right in the virtual public square -- online auctions.

IFAW looked at 183 publicly available websites in 11 countries for six weeks and turned up
7,111 online auctions for species that shouldn't be traded. The vast majority were for trade in endangered species, specifically elephant ivory, but also included live birds and some other animal products.

Most Expensive Food

    Black watermelon | Description: 17-pound premium black Densuke watermelon | From: Japan
    Cost: Most Densuke watermelons retail for $188 to $283, but this one fetched a record $6,100 at auction.

    Tomoko A. Hosaka, AP

    Burger | Description: Kobe beef, black truffles, foie gras, Gruyere cheese, topped with gold flakes and served with fries | From: The Wall Street Burger Shoppe in New York
    Cost: $175
    *Prices on this and the following items may have changed and some dishes may have been discontinued since first reported.

    Brendan McDermid, Reuters

    Champagne: Perrier-Jouet 2000 Belle Epoque, 750 mL | Description: Limited edition of 100 12-bottle sets, custom-flavored with the buyer's choice of liqueur | From: Pernod Ricard
    Cost: $79,000; roughly $6,300 per bottle

    Francois Guillot, Getty Images

    Sandwich: The McDonald | Description: Wagyu beef, foie gras, truffle mayonnaise, brie, rocket, red pepper and mustard confit, and plum tomatoes on sourdough | From: Selfridges department store in London
    Cost: $150

    Scott Barbour, Getty Images

    Cocktail: Martini on the Rock | Description: Martini with a diamond | From: Algonquin Hotel in New York
    Cost: $10,000

    Scott Gries, Getty Images

    Liquor: Aztec Passion Limited Edition | Description: 4.4-pound gold and platinum bottle of tequila | From: Tequila Ley .925
    Cost: $225,000
    Sources: AP, Reuters

    Susana Gonzalez, Getty Images

The report looked at species that were classified by the international authority, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as already endangered (what they call Appendix I) or at risk if we don't keep an eye or trade (Appendix II).

Here are some things it found:
  • The United States and Canada accounted for 54% of global listings: US$2,094,750
  • The U.S. and Canada bought $400,348 of endangered goods (87.5% of the total value)
  • In the U.S. 73% of the advertising volume occurred on eBay. Of that figure, 99% was in elephant ivory.
  • Some 98.8% of goods sold to Americans were from U.S.-based sellers
  • In the six weeks, U.S. eBay advertised 3,667 ivory items and sold 1,847 of them for a total of $370,000
  • IFAW estimates eBay earned $128,000 on $3.2 million in annual ivory sales through listing fees and commissions
The ban doesn't go into effect until the new year and I could still find plenty of ivory for sale on eBay. And because the ban will work on key words, sellers will be able to find their way around eBay's wildlife policy. They may just move on over to Craigslist, which effectively has zero standards as far as listings go. (You can flag something, but good luck on getting them to respond.)

What's weird is, eBay is usually pretty good about policing its listings. But these total animal listings are stunning. Last year it already banned the international sale of ivory, but IFAW still found plenty of it. If IFAW and I could find these listings, then surely someone from eBay could. Or how about the Fish and Wildlife Service? Aren't we paying them to do just that? Oh, yeah, their number of inspectors has been slashed to 210 from 238 in 2002. Meanwhile, since 2000 the amount of legal wildlife commerce has doubled.

I remember in the early days of eBay I once tried to skirt its rules to find an adoptive home for a stray kitten I took in. (I tried to sell cat kisses instead of a cat.) That auction was down and I was scolded within hours. If only it could put that kind of effort into stopping people who are, even if inadvertently, hurting animals.
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