Why eBay's ban on ivory will end up hurting the environment.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 30 2008 8:04 AM

eBay and Ivory

The auction site's ban on elephant products won't help the environment.

In November, Brendan Borrell wrote about eBay's coming ban on the sale of ivory products and why it may not be such a great idea. The ban goes into effect Thursday.

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The latest effort to humiliate eBay represents another example of an animal rights organization hijacking the African conservation agenda with an untenable vision that may do more harm than good. Advocates for a ban on ivory claim the CITES auction gives unscrupulous traders a chance to launder poached goods. But a wildlife trade monitoring program set up by WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has found that illegal-ivory seizures have declined in the five years following the last ivory auction approved by CITES in 1999. It appears that a flush of legal ivory from these auctions knocks out black-market dealers. While poaching remains a problem in Central and East Africa, the data suggest that those activities feed domestic African markets, not online auctioneers in the United States.

Most of the ivory that was being sold on eBay may not have been illegal at all. A good deal of ivory in the country simply predates the 1989 ban, and interstate sale of ivory is not tightly regulated or monitored. As for imports, residents can bring in licensed hunting trophies for personal use or antique ivory items more than 100 years old. The IFAW report on eBay simply identified certain auctions as "likely violations" or "possible violations" of the law, based on the wording used in listings. According to the study, just 15.5 percent of ivory goods on the site fell into the "likely violation" category. Turn those figures around, and it's clear that eBay also supported a vibrant, legal ivory market.

The only way to improve this market is through transparency, and eBay was ideally suited to play such a role. Because the site maintains a database of every auction, the final sale price, and the parties involved, it could provide a valuable tool for law-enforcement officers and conservation organizations. With those data, it would be possible to track the volume of the ivory trade and help identify questionable buyers and sellers based on their transaction patterns. Once the market moves offline—and to classifieds sites such as Craigslist—this sort of monitoring will be largely impossible.

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If eBay wanted to take a stand for conservation, it should have partnered with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—and notified its users that any purchase or sale of wildlife products will be recorded in a government database. Add to this the eventual possibility of spot checks using DNA testing, and we'd be well on our way to a sustainable, digital marketplace. Given such a framework, ivory would regain its respectability, and it might even be possible to open our borders to the importation of newly worked ivory from registered sellers abroad. After two decades under the ban, it's finally time to admit that saving elephants requires pulling a few teeth.

Brendan Borrell is correspondent for the Scientist and has written about wildlife for Smithsonian and Natural History. His e-mail address is bborrell@hotmail.com.