By Ted Williams
World’s largest online marketplace failing to combat online illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts despite a policy of deleting adverts, while many sites flourish completely unregulated.
Illegal online trafficking in imperiled wildlife is rampant, and attempted controls are few and largely ineffective. Log on to most any international internet store that deals in wildlife or wildlife parts, and you’ll find a charnel house of endangered and protected species hawked openly or under phony names and in violation of US law and international agreements.
The world’s largest online marketplace by far, eBay, is one of the few that makes a serious effort to control wildlife smuggling by deleting ads for illegal products — but only the few it notices or hears about. Chris Nagano of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Division is a trained lepidopterist. When I asked him if he sees any ads for illegal butterflies on eBay he replied: “There are a number of imperiled butterflies openly advertised on eBay, including some listed under the Endangered Species Act or protected under laws of countries they inhabit. Some of these species are sold to collectors for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”
Ivory products are the most popular wildlife items on internet markets, despite a global ban on ivory sales imposed by the 180-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The National Academy of Sciences, a body of scholars established by the US Congress, estimates that 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, mostly to sate ivory demand of China’s newly-moneyed middle class. At that unsustainable rate elephants are likely to be extinct in the wild within two decades.
In less than 10 minutes I found what looked like five ivory trinkets on eBay. When I reported them to Ryan Moore, eBay’s senior manager of global corporate affairs, four were confirmed and immediately deleted. A week later I told him about an ad for the critically endangered, globally protected Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, the world’s largest butterfly with wings sometimes spanning a foot and males aglow with iridescent yellows, blues and greens — the holy grail of collectors. Next day the ad was gone.
But such deletions scarcely make a dent. And although eBay has installed filters to catch words like “ivory,” smugglers dance around them. First, they called ivory “fauxivory”. When filters caught that ruse, smugglers called ivory “ox bone” — until filters picked up that, too. Each time eBay programs an alias into its filters another pops up. In the apt analogy of the company’s regulations and policy boss, Wolfgang Weber, kicking wildlife smugglers off eBay’s international sites is like playing the game “Whack-a-Mole.”
Private citizens like me — and even large NGOs — are hampered in our investigations because we can only flag what’s illegal or looks that way. We can’t procure hard evidence by buying the actual contraband because we’d be violating national and international laws. Not so with retired US Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Ken McCloud.
Before he left the service in 2007, McCloud was in charge of all eBay investigations for the agency’s eight regions. In 2011 he took on an assignment for his then-employer — the Burlingame, California-based Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, which is not your typical humane outfit in that it is wildlife-savvy. McCloud got permission from his former Office of Law Enforcement colleagues to buy wildlife contraband on eBay.
“I just started ordering illegal items offered overseas that eBay had already warned sellers about,” he says. “I’d write the sellers through eBay and say, ‘Is this illegal and are we gonna get in trouble for it?’ They’d write back and say, ‘Don’t worry; we do this all the time. We’ve got contacts with [US\ customs’. The correspondence was juicy and blatant. When I used to go undercover to work our educated US poachers and smugglers, it would take me at least a month to get them to trust me. These guys on eBay would open up the second I showed any concern. They’d give me examples of how they paid people off. Everything I bought came in falsely labeled.”
When eBay officials came to Burlingame in 2011 to view the enormous display of eBay contraband McCloud and Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA president Ken White had set up in a conference room, they were “blown away and horrified,” to borrow White’s words. “It looked like a black-market silent auction,” as one of White’s staffers put it. Soon thereafter eBay flew McCloud to its Salt Lake City, Utah, office for a day to teach screeners wildlife identification.
Until last May, McCloud was sending eBay pages-long lists of contraband he and his volunteers found advertised on its sites, along with the specific laws being violated. Here are four examples of thousands:
*“Ocelot is an endangered species and CITES Appendix I and if shipped to the USA will be in felony violation of the Lacey Act.”
*“Siamese Croc., endangered species, CITES App. I & felony Lacey Act & Money Laundering.”
*“Real python skin CITES App. II purse offered in international commerce and in violation of felony Lacey Act.”
*“Real lynx coat offered in international commerce in violation of CITES and felony Lacey Act.” As McCloud’s listings of illegal ads poured in, eBay deleted many of them. But filter dodging continued.
Ken White describes eBay as “a good company with a desire to do right,” but one that still offers “a tremendous amount of illegal animal products”. White and McCloud weren’t interested in doing a sting. They wanted to work with, not against, eBay; and for a brief time they did. The company even provided modest funding; but White says he needed lots more.
“As far as we ever heard from eBay they were thrilled with how we were helping make their marketplace better,” says White. “But they wouldn’t allow us to talk about the problem through the media or even through grant requests for the financial support we believed was available. We’re a large humane society with a $13m (£8.7m) operating budget, but that’s nothing in their world. So we ran out of money and had to shut down the program. More....