Green Room

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.

An African elephant

If, like me, you have always wanted to get a carved, elephant-ivory snuff box for that special someone, this holiday season may well be your last opportunity. The online auction site eBay announced on Oct. 20 that it would ban nearly all ivory sales on its auction sites effective Jan. 1. Last month, the company was embarrassed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which estimated that it was hosting an elephant-ivory trade in the United States worth $3.2 million per year.

This may seem like another example of corporate greenwashing—a way for the auction site to paper over its misdeeds and parade around as a concerned environmental steward. In fact, the new policy is directly at odds with mainstream conservationists. Just one week after eBay made its big announcement, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species—with support from WWF—was going forward with a one-time auction of government ivory stockpiles from elephants that either died of natural causes or had been culled in population-control programs in four southern African countries. These sales netted $15 million, earmarked for elephant conservation and local community-development programs. Although international laws governing the ivory trade are complex, the truth is that most of the ivory being sold on eBay was totally legal. More to the point, buying ivory online may actually be a good thing for conservation: The more snuff boxes we demand, the better chance that elephants and their ecosystems have to withstand the pressures of modernization.

Wild elephants are never going to be tolerated in Africa so long as locals cannot profit from the animals’ most valuable asset: those 120-pound teeth. As journalist John Frederick Walker argues in his provocative new book, Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants(to be published in January), the high regard with which American zoo-goers hold these proboscideans is not shared by poverty-stricken farmers in Kenya, who must contend with 4-ton living bulldozers rampaging their cassava fields and threatening their lives. Flip through African newspapers, and you’ll find lurid headlines describing trampled schoolchildren, panicked villagers, and nightly curfews. Americans would not put up with life under those conditions, yet we have imposed this imperial vision on a far-off continent that we imagine as our private zoo.

The elephant problem is equally vexing inside the national parks of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, whose burgeoning elephant populations must be managed to avoid their overwhelming the ecosystem. Elephants are the largest living land mammal, each consuming as much as 600 pounds of vegetation a day and drinking 50 gallons of water. In 1970, a hands-off policy to Kenya’s elephants in Tsavo National Park provided a bitter lesson to those who opposed culling. After ravaging the park’s fragile vegetation during a season of drought, elephants began dying by the thousands. Animals whose meat could have supported the region’s desperate farmers and whose ivory could have provided $3 million for conservation were rotting in the blazing sun. In the years since, South African wildlife managers have refined culling procedures to minimize trauma to elephant family groups, and they catalog and store ivory under lock and key in anticipation of future auctions.

But pragmatic approaches to elephant conservation took a blow in 1989, when celebrities Brigitte Bardot and Jimmy Stewart joined animal rights campaigns to fight the “elephant holocaust” being conducted by poachers and, by implication, wildlife managers. According to Walker, the WWF and the African Wildlife Foundation “felt it prudent … to keep quiet about the value of sustainable use policies.” Although no African or Western countries initially supported a ban on the ivory trade, by the end of the year they were on the losing end of the battle for public opinion. On Oct. 8, in Lausanne, Switzerland, CITES listed African elephants as Appendix I, effectively cutting off ivory sales, putting Asian importers and carving shops out of business, and turning “white gold” into a social no-no. “In the aftermath of the decision,” Walker writes, “the ivory market collapsed as ivory prices plummeted.”

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.

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.