Winter 2000 Issue Articles:

* Internet Creates New Market for Illegal Endangered Species Products
* CCC to Oppose Proposal to Legalize International Hawksbill Trade

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Internet Creates New Market for Illegal Endangered Species Products

By Gary Appelson, Policy Coordinator


More than 30 pieces of jewelry, shells and other products made from endangered sea turtles were found for sale on an Internet auction site.
Late last year, CCC was alerted by several of its members and colleagues that products made from endangered sea turtles were being illegally auctioned and sold on eBay, the largest Internet auction site. In January, CCC staff members investigated these allegations and were shocked at what they found. A simple site search turned up several dozen items made from the shell of endangered hawksbill turtles (commonly called “tortoise shell”). All of these items, including jewelry, guitar picks, cigarette cases and other decorative ornaments, were being sold through at least 30 separate eBay auctions. And every day scores of additional illegal products were added to the list. Items being auctioned included an entire hawksbill shell ("listed as a Rare Turtle and Head") and raw, “unworked” hawksbill shell, with bidding reaching several hundred dollars.

A further search of the eBay site found that the sale of endangered animal parts did not stop with sea turtles. CCC easily found auctions for genuine leopard skin coats and rugs, taxidermied migratory birds, and a Siberian bear skin rug (“with claws”). The site also contained scores of elephant ivory items. All of these items being traded on-line were in violation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). And contrary to initial claims by eBay, most of the products are illegal even if sellers acquired them prior to the passage of the ESA.

Most scientists agree that the hawksbill turtle is critically endangered around the world — having suffered an 80% decline worldwide during the last hundred or so years. According to a 1999 research report (Chelonian Conservaion and Biology (3)2:177-184 ) on the worldwide status of hawksbill turtles, “the intensity and antiquity of the demand for tortoise shell around the world have had a profound influence on the survival of the species.” Despite a decades-long ban in international tortoise shell trade, authors of the report conclude that, because hawksbill shell is so valuable and can be stored for long periods, “every case of illegal trade and every request to re-open any form of international trade, encourages fisherman to continue to stockpile the turtle’s shell.”

After its investigation, CCC contacted officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and eBay. The USFWS told CCC that it was already aware of some of these illegal auctions and had been working for over a year to get the products off eBay and other similar on-line auction sites. Their efforts had resulted in eBay posting instructions to buyers and sellers asserting that it is illegal to sell products made from endangered or threatened animals, and listed bear products, sea turtle products, and elephant ivory as examples of what eBay will not allow to be auctioned. But the instructions were hard to find, buried under layers of web pages. Additionally, eBay was not enforcing its policy and “relied on its community of buyers and sellers to alert the company to illegal animal product sales.”

After being contacted by CCC, neither eBay nor the USFWS claimed to be aware of the significance or scope of the problem.

“Quite frankly, we weren’t aware of the volume of turtle products being auctioned,” said Bob Snow, a USFWS agent who has been working with eBay for over a year.

According to USFWS officials, as a result of CCC’s activities the agency is now taking a much closer look at illegal Internet auctions. One issue confusing enforcement efforts until now has been the commonly held belief among antique dealers that endangered species items over 100 years old are exempted from the ESA. eBay initially used this false loophole as an excuse for not closing auctions of antique tortoiseshell items. Fortunately, the USFWS has now clarified its legal position and informed eBay and others that the sale of antique items made from endangered or threatened species is illegal unless (1) the seller can prove the item entered the country through one of a few certified ports of entry; (2) the item was inspected by the Service at the time of entry; and (3) the item carries USFWS certification as to its legality. With this ruling, all sales of hawksbill turtle items through eBay are effectively illegal.

“It was never our intention to simply pick on eBay,” said Gary Appelson, CCC’s Advocacy Coordinator. “CCC is just trying to get eBay and other on-line auction sites to exercise greater corporate responsibility in curbing the illegal activity on their sites. Also, the buyers and sellers of these products need to be aware that they are breaking the law and could have their property confiscated, or worse, they could be heavily fined or even jailed.”

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.