eBay's ivory ban: Why it happened and what it means

A newly expanded ivory ban on eBay highlights the challenge of running a global marketplace while complying with local laws.

A newly expanded ivory ban on eBay highlights the challenge of running a global marketplace while complying with local laws. eBay has decided to stop all sales of ivory products on its auction site, the company announced this week, following concerns over endangered elephant species often targeted for their ivory tusks and teeth.

"We feel this is the best way to protect the endangered and protected species from which a significant portion of ivory products are derived," says Jack Christin, eBay's senior regulatory counsel.

Calls for Change

The company has heard calls for the change since at least 2002, when the Humane Society publicized an investigation finding thousands of illegal ivory items on the site on any given day. The complication comes from the fact that ivory trading laws vary from nation to nation. International trade is prohibited by a United Nations convention, however, and eBay had already banned cross-border ivory sales in a ruling last year. eBay now says that ban was not enough.

"This ban tried to balance the protection of endangered and protected species while also providing a way for sellers to offer legitimate ivory products legally allowed for sale within domestic markets," says eBay blogger Richard Brewer-Hay. "Given the complexities of the global ivory trade, and the distinct and unique characteristics of the eBay Marketplace, the sale of any ivory on our site continued to be a concern within the company and among stakeholders," he adds.

The New Policy

The new policy goes into effect in December and will be enforced beginning in January. eBay will continue to allow antiques that contain only small amounts of ivory on the site, specifying that only items made before 1900 will qualify. Anyone violating the ban, execs promise, can expect to pay the price.

"We work closely with international and domestic law enforcement authorities ... and will assist them with any investigations they initiate," Christin says.

Activist Reaction

The Humane Society has "applauded" the change, citing the apparent ease with which traders were circumnavigating laws and using eBay as an easy way to peddle their wares.

"The laws and regulations pertaining to ivory trade are confusing and riddled with loopholes that are exploited by those involved in the international and domestic ivory trade," says Teresa Telecky, policy director of Humane Society International. "eBay's decision to wash its hands of the uncontrollable, bloody ivory trade is commendable and should set an example for others."

The Humane Society says the vast majority of ivory items placed for sale are explicitly illegal and most often come from poached African or Asian elephants. The animals are all considered threatened or endangered; more than 20,000 are killed for their ivory every year.

Another animal rights group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, released a report (PDF) Tuesday called "Killing for Keystrokes." The study details the growing issue of Internet-driven ivory trade and suggests the United States is responsible for more than two-thirds of the worldwide exchanges -- more than 10 times the amount of any other nation. The IFAW says it plans to "strictly monitor eBay" to make sure its new regulation is enforced.

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