E-commerce has disrupted a number of industries, but it's only helped expand the global market for items made of illegal African elephant ivory. Online sales listings for items made of the highly-coveted tusks of African elephants have increased in recent years, showing up on eBay, Google Shopping and numerous other online forums, according to conservation advocacy groups. Many of the groups are gathering this week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a summit to revise international wildlife trade agreements. While they say eBay has made progress in shutting down ivory sales on its websites around the globe, one nonprofit, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) faults Google for not doing enough in responding to concerns, and says Amazon is next on its list.
The EIA published a statement on its website Monday saying it found 10,000 ads for ivory products and another 1,400 for whale products on Google Shopping in Japan. The organization also sent Google a letter addressed to CEO Larry Page in late February asking the company to remove these ads, but says the company has not yet done so, or even responded to the letter.
Google Shopping Japan accused of hosting 10,000 ads for ivory products
"We want Google to permanently remove the ads across from Google Japan shopping but also to ensure all other Google shopping sites do not sell these or other threatened species products," wrote Allan Thornton, president of the EIA's US operation, in an email to The Verge on Tuesday. "We also want Google to have a designated person to ensure strict compliance of products prohibited for trade on Google shopping."
A quick search of Google Shopping Japan today by The Verge didn't reveal any obvious listings for elephant ivory products, but The Associated Press reports that the products are often sold under code words such as "unburnable bone," "ox-bone," and "white gold," among others. EIA also provided some screenshots of ads it said were for elephant ivory products.
"As soon as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them."
A Google spokesperson provided the following statement to The Verge: "Ads for products obtained from endangered or threatened species are not allowed on Google. As soon as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them." Google's own policies for Shopping prohibit ads for products made from elephant ivory, and the company in January published a blog post highlighting its efforts to crack down on ad violators, which included removing 224 million ads and banning 889,000 advertisers in 2012 alone.
It's not just Google the EIA is calling to task. "Our next expose is Amazon.com's Japanese website which still lists thousands of ads for ivory despite being against their own policy," Thornton told The Verge. Despite these efforts and those of companies to eliminate ads, demand for products made of elephant ivory is growing in Asia, namely China and Japan. Both countries recently imported legal shipments of ivory from Africa, according to the AP. Thornton said legal ivory shipments actually help fuel the illegal trade because the two can be easily mixed. "If Japan and China banned domestic sale of [legal] ivory today, poaching in Africa would plummet overnight," Thornton said.
"Our next expose is Amazon.com's Japanese website which still lists thousands of ads for ivory."
A recent investigation by another conservation group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), found 17,847 ivory products listed on 13 websites in China. An IFAW spokesperson told The Verge it has worked with Google, eBay, and the Alibaba Group, parent company of Chinese e-commerce site Taobao, to advise them of illegal wildlife listings on their web properties and connect them with law enforcement.
"In 2009, eBay, Inc. banned the sale of all ivory items on its platforms worldwide after consultations with IFAW about the results of our ground-breaking investigation Killing with Keystrokes," IFAW senior campaigns and prosecutions officer Tania McCrea-Steele wrote in an email. "The number of ivory items subsequently found on eBay sites has reduced significantly, although there is evidence that some sellers are deliberately trying to circumvent the ban by disguising their ivory items." An eBay spokesperson provided a statement reading in part: “The sale of items made from animal ivory is strictly prohibited on eBay[...]We are vigilant in monitoring the eBay marketplace and partnering globally with external organizations and regulatory agencies to uphold our policy."
That underscores one of the underlying problems with the fighting illegal wildlife trade online: It's difficult to tell exactly what a product is made of and whether or not it's legal simply by trusting online product descriptions and photos. That ultimately means some illegal items will still sneak through on e-commerce websites, according to conservation advocates. In response, the IFAW told the AP it wants to see e-commerce sites implement some sort of system to have sellers prove that their wares are legal. As for Google specifically, Thornton wants the company to press harder, too. "I hope Google will use some of their vast resources and expertise to save Africa's elephants," he wrote. "That would mean seeking a total ban on all ivory trade, including domestic sales."