Illegal ivory is being openly traded on internet auction and social media sites in Britain as criminals “launder” poached elephant tusk products by selling online, conservation experts have warned.
Dozens of items carved from elephant tusks are being offered for sale online on a daily basis by sellers based in countries including Britain as organised crime gangs target the remaining markets where ivory can still be sold legally as antique.
The introduction by China this month of a complete ban on all ivory sales has increased pressure on Britain and other EU countries to bring in their own blanket prohibition to prevent existing legitimate commercial trade being used as a smokescreen for poached ivory. The Government has said it expects to bring forward such a ban later this year.
Researchers have found evidence that in the meantime the illegal trade – part of a global illicit wildlife trade worth up to $26.5bn (£19.6bn) – is flourishing. More than 20,000 elephants a year are still being slaughtered by poachers in Africa. A study by the University of Kent found that barely any ivory or other illegal wildlife products are being sold via the so-called darknet, where there is a flourishing criminal market in drugs and firearms.
Instead, the researchers found that ivory is being sold openly on conventional auction sites, including eBay. Traders are exploiting complex rules which are meant to restrict the trade in Britain to pre-1947 “antiques” but can act as a cover for the sale of items fashioned from poached elephant tusks.
Despite perfecting a prototype software system which can pinpoint potentially illegal ivory with 93 per cent accuracy, the University of Kent team have been told by law enforcement agencies and wildlife protection groups that they cannot afford to fund its deployment on the frontline.
As a result, campaigners and researchers have warned that sellers of illegal ivory are trading with a worrying degree of impunity on the “surface” web, often by misdescribing recent ivory as antique. In some cases, sellers have been found trying to sell “raw” or whole elephant tusks.
Dr David Roberts, a conservation scientist at the University of Kent and co-author of the study into illegally traded wildlife, said: “The surface web is being used by criminals because they have found they can trade there for the most part with impunity. Unlike those selling drugs or guns, they don’t feel they have to move to the darknet. “What is frustrating is that tackling this online trade does not seem to be priority. It falls between boots-on-the-ground enforcement against poaching in Africa and reduction of demand in south east Asia. We have had enforcement agencies and campaign groups say they would like to have our software as an enforcement tool but they don’t have the funding to progress it further.”
Rather than blatantly advertising items as “elephant ivory”, online traders use alternative keywords recognised by buyers, at least some of whom are likely to know that they may be purchasing illicit items.
Using these keywords the i was able to find four potentially illegal elephant ivory figures for sale on eBay, which has a policy of not allowing the sale of any elephant ivory products. Three of the items, which experts confirmed were genuine ivory, were being offered by UK-based sellers while another was being sold in the United States, which last year brought in its own blanket ban on all ivory sales. The i has agreed not to disclose the search terms used by the ivory sellers.
The trade highlights the difficulty in distinguishing between legal antique ivory and products which are advertised as antique but are in reality recent poached ivory. The only reliable method of telling the age of ivory – carbon dating – costs around £400 per test.
EBay has been one of the leading advocates of a complete ban on commercial ivory sales in the EU and has trained staff in how to pinpoint items. The company said it last year removed more than 25,000 listings for illegal wildlife goods after working with conservation body the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
In a statement, eBay said: “We work with conservation groups including IFAW and go beyond legal requirements to restrict the sale of ivory products on our marketplace. The eBay Trust and Safety Team scour the site each day to take action on any items of concern, for example when an item is listed maliciously.”
Poachers and Traffickers
Conservationists warn that Britain and EU countries find themselves as potential conduits for illegal ivory because they are currently the largest exporters of legal ivory products. A total of 2,242 elephant tusks and more than 44,000 ivory products were legally exported from the EU in the decade to 2015 and Britain, which granted licences for 36,000 items between 2010 and 2015, is by far the largest supplier.
Will Travers, co-founder of the Born Free wildlife charity, said: “The presence of this large legal trade in ivory products to, within and from the EU stimulates global demand and provides poachers and traffickers with a mechanism by which illegal ivory from recently-killed elephants can be laundered into the trade.”
Britain is due to host an international conference in October on measures to curb the illegal wildlife trade.
Why is Britain the world’s biggest exporter of legal ivory?
Britain’s colonial history helps to put it in an unique – and increasingly unenviable – position as the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory.
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed last year that Britain issued export licences for more than 36,000 legal ivory items between 2010 and 2015. The figure is more than three times that of next largest exporter, the United States (9,824).
Britain was also by the far largest exporter to the China and Hong Kong with 13,056 items destined to the two countries, which until they announced their own bans on all ivory trade were also among the biggest destinations for illegal poached ivory. The bans in the Far East (China introduced its prohibition this month and Hong Kong, home to the world’s largest ivory retail market, is due to follow by 2022) leave Britain and other European countries in the position of being the only remaining sizable traders to still allow a commercial ivory trade.
Mary Rice, EIA executive director, said: “As well as fuelling demand for ivory, the UK’s legal trade provides opportunities for the laundering of illegal ivory, both within the country and internationally.” Britain is expected to announce its own ban on commercial ivory trade, subject to a small number of exceptions, later this year.