Wed, May 09, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Wildlife caught in web of Internet sales

Environmentalists are appealing to online auction sites to help stamp out sales of animals taken in the wild



The wildlife poacher has a new ally: the Internet, say activists who plan to tame this illegal trade in live animals and the remains of their slaughter, such as ivory, skins and tusks.

"Illegal trade has increased exponentially because of the ease of selling by Internet," said Lynne Levine, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Her group began a letter-writing campaign to eBay in European countries asking the Internet auction sites to reject sales of animals taken in the wild or any of their parts, whether made into footstools, chess sets, pens or other ornaments, especially rhinoceros horns and ivory.

"A huge portion of the illegal items traded over the Internet is ivory products," said Michael Wamithi, a Kenyan elephant program manager.

"The impact of Internet sales is most definitely felt on the ground in elephant country," he testified before the US Congress.

Wamithi came from Nairobi to lobby Washington in favor of stanching Internet trade in ivory and all illegal takings, which gets an international hearing next month.

The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty of 171 countries that will meet in June.

Then, Germany, representing the EU, will promote the idea of policing the Internet, where the remains of endangered species such as tigers and sharks are sold as poultices of no medical value.

Twenty-six tonnes of ivory was seized around the world in the past 18 months, Levine said. "We believe that is 10 percent of trade."

Some of it winds up on the US eBay auction site, which as Levine spoke showed 385 items made of ivory, from trinkets to a "Magnificent 5-foot long elephant ivory party boat!" with a starting bid of US$30,000. The seller's New York address was listed.

Few items on the US eBay professed to be "pre-ban ivory," but such claims mean little, said Levine, who compares the ivory trade to the sale of diamonds, but without a Kimberly process to certify it.

Even a certificate of authenticity prior to the 1947 international ban does not raise the value of the piece, because enforcement is so lax, she said.

"People are selling stuff because they think they can get away with it, and so far they have," Levine said.

In the countries where activists have approached eBay and other auction sites, "The ivory offerings have been reduced by 98 percent," she said.

Not surprisingly, wildlife defenders had good results with eBay in Germany, which will spearhead Internet enforcement proposals at the 14th CITES meeting of all member nations in The Hague from June 3 to June 15.

US offices of eBay did not return repeated telephone calls from reporters.

While the member nations are required to conform to CITES rules, Levine said, enforcement will be more difficult than putting the right rules in place.

"France has some of the most excellent policies of all of the international eBays but they have a problem enforcing," she said.

Not a problem for Craig's List, a San Francisco-based community bulletin board in hundreds of cities allowing classified advertisements, jobs, second-hand items, even "erotic services," that anyone may post -- or police.

With a staff of 23 supervising 5 billion pages a month, founder Craig Newmark said he would let the consumer beware.

"I encourage anyone who sees anything like that to flag it and let us know if there is a problem so we can see if there's a problem," he said.

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