One paw up: A mixed report in bid to end Net traffic of protected species

Even as eBay agrees to ban the sale of elephant ivory, wildlife group says this may only be tip of the iceberg when it comes to illegal Internet traffic in protected or endangered species.

One small step for animals, one giant step for animal kind?

Maybe.

Ivory tusks sold via the Internet IFAW

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is celebrating a decision by eBay to issue a global ban on the sale of elephant ivory products by January 1, 2009.

Coincidentally or not, eBay issued its report Monday, one day before the IFAW issued its report detailing the illegal trade in endangered species over the Internet. Nichola Sharpe, a spokeswoman for eBay, said the company had just seen a copy of the report and did not have immediate comment. But she added that eBay planned to implement a variety of "filters and different algorithms" in a bid to eradicate ivory trade among its users. She did not get more specific.

Truth be told, the 38-page report, Killing with Keystrokes, makes for depressing reading.

Among the findings:

• eBay is responsible for 63 percent of the trade in endangered species. Elephant ivory dominated the investigation and comprised 73 percent of all products tracked. In one instance, IFAW said it had tracked a shipment of full elephant tusks valued at $20,000 being hawked on eBay

• eBay sites in six countries were discovered selling endangered wildlife products, including ivory and hides from elephants, turtle shells, taxidermy items, and leopard, cheetah, ocelot, lizard, and crocodiles skins.

• Two-thirds of all endangered species products listed on eBay originated in the United States

Sample of the uncovered auction traffic IFAW

Barbara Cartwright, the IFAW's Canada campaigns manager, said that "with this one decision, that should get wiped out." There is particular sensitivity to ivory as it's connected to the annual slaughter of roughly 20,000 elephants in Asia and Africa.

But Cartwright and other IFAW executives were careful to qualify their optimism. She said that the campaign against the illegal trade in protected species extends far beyond eBay and its affiliates.

"The Internet is so vast that it's making it hard to nail down for lawmakers and for law enforcement," she said. "We were only able to look at publicly available sites. There's probably an entire underground trade that we don't have skills to uncover."

Live animals accounted for about 21 percent of the creatures trafficked over the Internet. The remainder consists of wildlife products made from the remains of protected species. The IFAW investigation said the list included elephants, birds, primates, and big cats.

In terms of national origin, nearly 40 percent of the sellers tracked by IFAW came from the United States. Looked at another way, the U.S. accounts for 10 times the traffic of the next two countries on the list, the United Kingdom and China, according to Jeff Flocken, who runs the organization's Washington, D.C., office.

"U.S. citizens are driving the trade beyond U.S. borders," he said, adding that what's been uncovered to date on publicly available Web sites "may represent just the tip of the iceberg of what's going on in the Internet."

Here's an interview I conducted after today's press conference with Flocken.

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