Date: January 10, 2000
Contact: Gary Appelson
Phone: (325) 373-6441
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA – What does the “e” in eBay.com stand for? Judging by the large selection of illegal hawksbill turtle shell products available for sale through this online auction site, the “e” could stand for “endangered species.”
Humans have used hawksbill shell, more commonly called “tortoise shell,” for centuries to make everything from hair combs to eyeglasses frames, leading to the near extinction of the beautiful hawksbill turtle. In 1973, the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to buy or sell endangered species like the hawksbill turtle. But with a click of your computer’s mouse button you can buy these illegal products online through eBay’s website.
On Jan. 6, about about 50 genuine tortoise shell items were listed for sale through ebay, said Gary Appelson, advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC). The illegal products included intricately designed hair ornaments and glasses cases. The bidding on an unworked “scute” or piece of hawksbill shell was at $480, with nearly 30 bids registered. The seller, listed only as “isabeII4,” said it was “perfectly legal” to sell the piece because it had been given as a gift many years ago, implying that it was originally purchased before the Endangered Species Act was passed. IsabeII4 suggested that the piece, when worked, would make several sets of wrist cuffs or hair combs.
As for whether it is legal to sell pre-Endangered Species Act sea turtle products, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says “pressreleases.php?page=no.” Citing an Oct. 19, 1995, U.S. Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Opinion, a USFWS representative said that pre-Endangered Species Act wildlife products can never be sold in interstate commerce. This opinion applies to eBay because a 1993 Fourth Circuit Court opinion determined that merely advertising endangered wildlife in the Washington Post newspaper constituted an offer for sale in interstate commerce. Similarly, once an individual lists an endangered wildlife item on eBay, this constitutes an offer for sale in interstate commerce and the Fourth Circuit Court determination applies.
USFWS said that the USFWS Law Enforcement Division monitors eBay for the posting of endangered wildlife products, but due to the division’s workload, agents are unable to monitor the site on a daily or even weekly basis, allowing many endangered wildlife items to slip through enforcement cracks.
Despite eBay’s position that it clearly notifies sellers on its website that it does not permit the listing of endangered animals products, CCC’s Appelson was not able to find the policy easily through his own search of the ebay website. The policy was eventually located under the heading “site map.”
eBay’s policy states that it does not permit the listings of any sea turtle item on its site. However on Jan. 6, a site search using the words “tortoise shell” turned up about 140 items, with 50 of those believed by Appelson to be genuine hawksbill tortoise shell. The total bidding amount for those items stood at more than $4,000. On Jan. 7, the bidding for a tortoise shell watch stood at more than $1,000. As of Jan. 10, a similar number of tortoise shell items were listed for auction.
And the problem isn’t limited to sea turtle products. A search of the site using the keywords “elephant ivory” turned up several items for bidding, although ebay’s policy states eBay will not permit the listing of elephant ivory. On Jan. 10, other products listed for sale on eBay in violation of the company’s own policy and/or state and federal laws included a leopard skin cape, a leopard skin purse, and several bear items including bear skins and a taxidermied bear cub. A site search using the word “tusks” turned up a pair of scrimshawed elephant tusks, with bidding standing at $3,450.
“I find it inexcusable that eBay is not enforcing its own policy of not allowing sea turtle items and other endangered species products to be listed for sale on its website,” said Appelson. “eBay may be the world’s largest online black market for endangered species products.”
Appelson said eBay must take the responsibility to monitor its site and remove those items that they have stated in their policy they will not permit. “Also, eBay needs to enforce their policy on the listing of endangered animals and make it clear to potential sellers and buyers. Finally, the buyers and sellers of these products need to be aware that if they list or buy endangered animal products, like tortoise shell, they are breaking the law and at best could have their property confiscated, and at worse could be heavily fined or even jailed.”
USFWS officials told Appelson on Jan. 7 that eBay would be removing the illegal tortoise shell items from its site. However by Jan. 10, many tortoise shell items remained for sale on the site. Also, eBay has given CCC no assurances that even if the legal products are removed, they will not be listed for sale again in the future. Nor has there been any increased efforts to educate buyers and sellers about illegal trafficking in endangered species products on the eBay site.
eBay recently clarified its policy banning endangered species items, including antiques, and has increased enforcement. Most of the blatantly illegal auctions in wildlife products are now halted soon after being posted. But the instructions telling buyers and sellers what is illegal are still not listed prominently.
Despite suggestions by the USFWS and CCC that eBay use its Internet technology to automatically notify sellers and buyers trying to sell animal parts of the laws and penalties, eBay continues to rely on hit-or-miss monitoring by its staff and its community of users to catch the illegal auctions.