Illegal Elephant Ivory Is Still Being Disguised And Sold On Ebay Despite 11-Year Ban

Elephant ivory often gets disguised as cow bone on the online market. Jo Crebbin/ 

The sale of elephant ivory has been banned by the online auction marketplace eBay for a decade, but new research published in the journal Tropical Conservation Research indicates this has done little to halt its trade on the website. Led by researchers from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), the paper describes how code words are being employed by vendors to disguise the illegal items, with many opting to describe the items as carved “bone.”

Netsuke is the name given to carved objects, commonly made of elephant ivory, that make up part of the cord attached to Japanese kimonos. Telling authentic elephant ivory from carved bone isn’t an easy task for the untrained eye, but Sofia Venturini and Dr David Roberts of DICE were able to assess the authenticity of Netsukes sold on eBay by looking for Schreger lines. These lines are unique to elephant ivory making illegal items easier for the pair to pick out from items made from legal bone.

Not wanting to contribute to the trade of illegal animal products from an ethical standpoint, they scanned the photographs of available items to discern the materials they were made from. Their investigations revealed that elephant ivory was commonly being passed off as cow bone in the item descriptions, and only a small percentage (~1.3 to 6.9 percent) of these had been identified and taken down by eBay a month later.

The research looked at the Netsuke trade on eBay and found some ivory items were being described as cow bone. Nadiia Korol/

In 2008, eBay announced it was introducing a global ban on the sale of ivory, starting January 1, 2009. It's also a founding member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online and works with the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "We have global teams dedicated to upholding standards on our marketplace, and over a recent two-year period we blocked or removed over 265,000 listings prohibited under our animal products policy," an eBay spokesperson told CNN Business.

"Despite eBay’s strict policy on Animal and Wildlife Products, there is still an ongoing trade in ivory, mostly concealed as other non-restricted materials," said Dr Roberts in a statement. "While detecting illegal sales of ivory items can be particularly difficult as, for example, the word “ivory” can be used to describe a colour, companies like eBay have the resources and data that could be mobilised to tackle the challenge of illegal wildlife trade."

Despite information on illegal trafficking and wildlife trade being more available than ever before, the popularity of such items hasn’t waned in recent years and while efforts continue to be made by governments and law enforcement to shut it down the practice continues to rage on. In 2020, government officials in China took steps to prevent the trade of endangered pangolins by removing them from the list of ingredients for items used in traditional medicines. Pangolins are one of the most trafficked animals in the world and last year were found to carry coronaviruses similar to the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, though at time of writing there is no evidence to indicate they were the intermediate host that allowed COVID-19 to pass from bats to humans.


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