Sellers simply call ivory by other names including ‘bovine bone’, investigation shows.
Sellers are flouting eBay’s self-imposed ban on the sale of elephant ivory by listing it under pseudonyms.
An investigation by the BBC and legal experts found ivory objects were often listed as “bovine bone”.
We bought three such items on eBay UK and tested them in an independent lab. Two were confirmed to be made of ivory.
An analysis by ivory trade experts also indicated that thousands of elephant ivory objects have been sold on the site since the company banned its sale.
The investigation was started by Dr Caroline Cox at the University of Portsmouth. She and other ivory trade experts are concerned that online trade could continue, potentially undermining a new UK-wide ban on the sale of ivory, which came into force on 6 June.
It is more than 10 years since BeBay announced its own complete, worldwide ban on ivory sales. An online post stated that the global ban would “protect buyers and sellers, as well as animals in danger of extinction”.
In 2018 Dr Cox and her team carried out a three month online study, tracking “bovine bone” as a sale category on eBay’s UK site. The team tracked 632 pieces of bovine bone that were sold on eBay UK; more than 500 of those were determined to be ivory.
For this online forensic study, Dr Cox explained, she was able to use pictures and information in listings that provide buyers – and investigators – with clear evidence of what the objects are actually made of.
“Ivory has a distinct, creamy colour,” she explained. “And a listing will often mention the weight of the item being sold – very accurately and specifically – because that’s the measure of ivory’s value.”
The key piece of evidence is in the image of an object. Carved ivory has distinct and visible growth lines called Schreger lines, which you can think of as tree rings, but for teeth and tusks. “These are unique to ivory,” said Dr Cox.
Investigators and law enforcement officers have long employed these visual techniques to identify illegal ivory, both in seizures of the material and when they are investigating the online trade.
The ivory act
BBC News bought three objects listed on eBay as bovine bone to have tested in an independent lab in 2019.
Of three items we bought, a small, carved African head ornament, a bracelet and a set of figurines, two were chemically confirmed by scientists in the Oxford University School of Archaeology to be made of elephant tusk.
In a statement responding to the BBC’s findings, eBay said that it had been working to tackle the illegal trade in elephant ivory for nearly a decade.
“We blocked or removed over 265,000 listings prohibited under our animal products policy in a recent two-year period,” a spokesperson told BBC News in an email.
“Our proactive approach means that illicit ivory sellers are forced to use obscure ‘code words’ [for items] which very rarely – if at all – get sold, because buyers can’t find them.”
The ivory trade experts who started this investigation pointed out that they tracked 500 eBay sales of ivory to completion over just three months in 2018. And the same code words or pseudonyms, primarily “bovine bone” were used repeatedly.
Laws on the ivory trade differ from country to country. On Monday, the UK brought into force what it called “one the toughest bans on elephant ivory sales in the world”. From 6 June, trade in elephant teeth and tusks is illegal in the UK, punishable by fines of up to £250,000 or up to five years in prison.
Scrolling for wildlife
EBay is not the only online platform that wildlife traders have exploited. During our investigation of the pet trade in endangered apes back in 2017, we found animals being advertised on Instagram, in posts that the company subsequently removed.
And in April of this year, researchers from a conservation campaign group called Avaaz published a report citing “129 pieces of potentially harmful wildlife trafficking content” posted on Facebook,” including posts selling or seeking cheetahs, monkeys, pangolins and pangolin scales, lion cubs, elephant tusks, and rhino horn.
In response to the report, Facebook’s parent company Meta said: “We prohibit the trading of endangered wildlife or their parts. Meta is a dedicated member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.“
John Scanlon, CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation said that these online platforms had “enormous reach and impact”.
“If they are not carefully policed, they are an efficient vehicle for criminals to sell illicit goods in any country,” he said. “So it’s deeply troubling when an online platform makes big commitments about policing trade, but then fails to deliver.”
“The international community has made great progress at closing down legal ivory markets in recent years, of which the new UK legislation is just the latest example. But this progress risks being seriously undermined by leakages online.”
Conservationists point out though that threats to Africa’s elephants are changing.
“Organised ivory poaching remains a threat in some regions, especially in central Africa, but has been much reduced in parts of eastern and southern Africa,” said Mr Scanlon. “We believe that the biggest emerging threat comes from the increasing competition between growing human populations and elephants for land and resources, especially as the impact of climate change is beginning to be felt.”
Dr Cox and other wildlife trade experts are concerned though that, as national legislation is tightened, more products like ivory could move online, especially if platforms are not policed.
“Sites like eBay operate by allowing millions of sellers all around the world to advertise across international borders,” Dr Cox pointed out.
She added that the company’s failure to enforce its ban on the trade in ivory provided a safe space for a trade that threatened wildlife.
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