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E-tail giants struggle to avoid ivory trade

Online sales platforms including Amazon, eBay, Google, and Yahoo are all complicit in online ivory sales, willingly or not.

Online sales platforms including Amazon, eBay, Google, and Yahoo are all complicit in online ivory sales, willingly or not.

A viral petition urging Yahoo to "stop [its] deadly ivory trade!" has drawn attention to how e-tailers participate in online sales of endangered animal parts, both willingly and unwillingly.

The Avaaz.org petition, which swept up over a million signatures within a matter of days, calls on Yahoo to end sales of ivory via Yahoo Japan's auctions Web site. A December 2015 report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimated that over 12 metric tonnes of ivory were traded via Yahoo Japan from 2012 to 2014. Several thousand pieces of ivory are for sale via Yahoo Japan's auctions Web site at any given time, according to The Guardian.

Yahoo Japan is also the only major e-tailer in Japan that continues to sell whale and dolphin meat, according to an April 2015 EIA report.

Although the petition correctly states that "several big brands like Google and Amazon are refusing to sell ivory", it misses several broader challenges in positing that "Yahoo is one of the few major online markets left".

While Yahoo Japan continues to sell ivory, its US-based parent has banned sales of the product, and even top e-tailers with global bans on ivory sales – such as Amazon, Google, and eBay – struggle constantly to effectively enforce these bans.

Lack of control

Yahoo Inc, the US-based global parent of Yahoo Japan, has attempted to distance itself from the localised offshoot by reminding the public that it is merely an investor with no controlling interest in Yahoo Japan, and is unable to intervene.

Yahoo Japan has defended its participation in ivory trade on legal grounds, insisting it prohibits the sale of ivory products that violate the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty, which prohibits the sale of ivory that has been internationally traded after 1989.

The Japan-based company adds it is strengthening its moderation policies to more effectively police the sales it finds illegal.

A flimsy front

Yet making promises about the legality of ivory trade is problematic in online spaces.

Legally-traded ivory is generally verified as such by means of official documentation, which is easier to forge online, where scans and photographs can easily be photoshopped and cannot be physically inspected.

Selling legal ivory under the guise that it is "antique" is a common and easy ruse used by illegal online traders.

Keyword ‘whack-a-mole'

Preventing ivory sales has proved impossible even for e-tailers that have outright banned it, such as Amazon, Google and eBay. In 2013, the EIA found both Google and Amazon were hosting tens of thousands of advertisements promoting ivory and whale products, largely on their Japanese shopping Web sites.

In 2008, the International Fund for Animal Welfare found 4 300 of 5 200 tracked elephant ivory listings on eBay, despite the platform's unequivocal ban on the products.

All three platforms have expressed difficulty in preventing ivory from being sold via their sites.

Wolfgang Weber, eBay's head of regulatory and legal counsel and business ethics officer, told the Guardian in 2015 that trying to trap and remove ivory listings by flagging certain keywords was like playing "whack-a-mole", as once one key term ("ivory") was shut down, another would pop up. Popular online code terms for ivory include "ox bone" and "white gold".

Innovative measures

In 2012, Google employee Winnie Lam decided to develop an algorithm to weed out ivory ads after she noticed that filtering out particular keywords was ineffective, particularly because words such as "ivory" and "white gold" can also refer simply to the colours of innocuous items such as clothing and metal jewellery.

Lam worked with other Google engineers in developing an algorithm that focuses on the proximity of some words to others, and "dozens of other factors", rather than simply targeting constantly-changing keywords.

Beyond algorithms

Another challenge e-tailers face in eradicating sales of endangered animal specimens is the sheer volume of endangered species and corresponding items sold online.

While products such as rhino horn and ivory are commonly known to be illegal, other illegal animal specimens are more difficult for the untrained eye to pick out, and include rare butterflies, snake skins and coats of endangered cats such as ocelots and lynxes.

In the past, eBay has employed conservationists to train staff to recognise a broader range of wildlife contraband, although this process has proved to be of high cost to the company.


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