For several years now, animal welfare groups have known that illegal wildlife trading would proliferate across the internet. Now, several groups are claiming that illegal trafficking is by far, the number one threat to the survival of endangered species.
Back in 2005, the UK branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), released a report called Caught in the Web: Wildlife Trade on the Internet
; in it, the conservation group revealed that they had found more than 9,000 wild animals and animal products for sale in just one week on eBay.
"Clearly, the investigation uncovered merely the tip of an enormous iceberg," said IFAW at the time. Results were taken solely from "English language sites and restricted to trade in just five categories of endangered species: live primates, elephant products, turtle and tortoiseshell products, other reptile products and those from wild cats," it added.
IFAW went on to describe eBay as "by far the Internet’s single biggest shop window," and slammed the corporation for its "comprehensive and alarming failure ... to take adequate action." In short claimed the group, eBay was "allowing users to buy and sell wildlife products made from some of the world’s most endangered species."
The 2005 survey was followed up by an IFAW snapshot survey in 2007 called Bidding for Extinction
, which was initiated after a succession of in-depth investigative reports not only by IFAW, but by counterparts from the Humane Society of the United States and the Wildlife Conservation Society. When combined, the reports uncovered worrying levels of wildlife trade conducted via the internet.
While "It is impossible to quantify exactly the scale of the illegal trade in protected and endangered species" said IFAW, the trade is so great, "it is now estimated to be second only to illegal trafficking in drugs and weapons."
The snapshot survey covered only the selling of elephant ivory over a period of seven days in Feb. 2007 and incorporated eBay Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, and China. IFAW uncovered some startling results.
Despite eBay policies about wildlife product trading on its sites, the conservation group found numerous violations across its websites on a global scale. For example, on eBay Australia, there were 197 listings for elephant ivory, yet only two (1%), appeared to be fully compliant with the site’s ivory policy.
In Canada, of 717 items resulting from a search for 'ivory,' 627 of them were elephant ivory. Only 72 (10%) descriptions, met eBay policies said IFAW. "Some sellers did not know whether what they were selling was bone or ivory or even its species of origin," they added.
eBay China had 76 elephant ivory items listed and a further 33 products made from other endangered wild animals. These comprised three products made from tiger tooth or claw, 13 from rhino horn and 17 from turtle shells, all of which "are protected by a CITES Appendix I listing and as Class 1 National Protected Wild Animals in China," IFAW said.
The conservation group did offer credit to eBay Germany for stepping up and implementing stricter controls. The better policies they said, reduced the number of ivory items on the website by 98 percent. France unfortunately, could not have been more blatant. Out of 703 ivory products, all of them were openly in defiance of both the national and international ivory ban.
The list grew: Netherlands, 92 listings, all in contravention; UK, 424 elephant ivory items, all but two of them in violation of the law or listing policy, and in the U.S., of 90 ivory items listed during the survey week, only four were compliant.
IFAW added that the often contradictory polices in place between eBay sites in different countries also did not help. With "no single, well-defined, consistent global eBay policy on the listing of elephant ivory or wildlife products" the group said, the rules are open to interpretation.
Illegal wildlife traders are also making use of more sophisticated internet tools. "A report due to be published later this year," explained the UK's Guardian
newspaper yesterday, "concludes that a growing proportion of wildlife crime is using "deep web" tools more commonly associated with serious financial criminals, drug traffickers and child pornographers."
The perception of anonymity across the web also plays a role said IFAW. "Online wildlife trade is seen as a high-profit, low-risk activity by some criminals," said IFAW's Kelvin Alfie. Meanwhile Traffic
, the wildlife trade monitoring network, said it will be issuing its own report later in the year after its "researchers in Canada received emails from dealers offering to export coral without required permits by pretending the specimens were glass."
eBay banned the sale of ivory on its sites after IFAW's 2007 investigation, but the Guardian
maintains that sellers skirt the ban by using different terminology, ox-bone instead of ivory for example. A search for ox-bone this morning on eBay, raised over 4,800 results on the UK site and almost 12,000 on its U.S. site.
IFAW, which describes the internet at its website
, as 'the world’s biggest shop,' says that "Worldwide, 7,725 species of animals, from insects and birds to gorillas, elephants and reptiles, are considered at risk of extinction. That’s 20% of all known mammal species and 12% of known species of birds threatened with being lost forever."