Ivory restrictions bypassed on online shops
Flying under the radar is a bill made in 2018, enforced only earlier this month after it faced harsh opposition. This new UK ivory regulation should help further reduce poaching on elephant species across seas. Here to tell Harry Lewis more is BBC News science correspondent Victoria Gill, who’s been on the hunt to see how easy it is to buy ivory online…
Victoria - The new ivory act was instigated in 2018, but it's finally coming to force on the 6th June 2022. And it essentially means, with very few exceptions, that it's completely illegal to trade in ivory in the UK. So the UK government’s calling it one of the toughest ivory trade bans in the world.
Harry - I remember when I was younger and used to see ivory quite a lot around, particularly my grandparents' house and their friends, but today I hardly ever see it. Is it still a massive issue?
Victoria - That is an interesting question, because actually the threat of poaching is not the major existential threat to elephants now. A bigger problem for elephants is the combined threat of climate change and also a competition for space and resources with people. But as an animal welfare issue, where it is a problem, it's really nasty because these animals are killed and their tusks removed. It can be really brutal. So even in this country, in the UK, decades ago, we might have seen, like you say, in our grandparents' houses, valuable items made of ivory. Beautiful carvings with this creamy colour, this really dense and smooth and very valuable object that is something that's really lessened now. And there's demand in certain parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is a real hotspot still for ivory objects. It's still seen as something of a status symbol, but the demand for it has certainly lessened in Europe and in the US.
Harry - And in the UK, not only are we seeing a decline in demand for that product, but also this stringent amendments come in. So we can, I assume, step back and wipe our hands of this. We've done everything we need to right?
Victoria - New York; the state law toughened up and banned the trade in ivory and people who were tracking those sales saw them move online. So that's a really big concern. And I've been looking at one of the biggest online marketplaces, which is eBay, over the last couple of years and essentially working with these ivory trade experts. We've seen that people are still listing ivory, they're just calling it something else. Now eBay itself instigated a global ban in 2009, so the company says it's been ahead of UK legislation and some of the legislation around the world that's toughening up on the ivory trade. The problem is that signs of these exchanges online suggest that's not been enforced because people are just leaving the word "ivory" off the listing and calling it something else. So back in 2018, when the researchers we were working with started tracking this, they saw out of 600 sales of ivory - that was 600 sales of an item called using one of these code words, they use code words around the term bone, because this stuff looks a lot like bone, right? It's kind of a similar colour, but it's much more valuable, high grade. There's certain clues in the listing that you can see where they list the weight and they describe the colour. You can also see growth lines in a tusk that just aren't evident on any other type of bone. They're very specific to ivory. So out of 600 sales of items that were termed "bovine bone" that these ivory trade experts tracked, 500 of them, they confirmed were ivory. We actually followed that up by buying some of this bovine bone and testing it. And two out of the three items that we bought turned out to be ivory. So there's evidence there that people are flouting a ban that's been in place for a decade. The concern now is whether there will be a continuation of that movement of trade online. If it's not enforced properly, that people will just ignore the national legislation and move to a space like an online space, where that spans international borders and continue to flout those rules.
Harry - It sounds like it's going to be quite difficult to manage in this online space. Is there anything that these organisations can put in place straight away to try and prevent this trade?
Victoria - I guess you can't replace the sort of human resource of having someone check over listings. But when you're looking at a company the size of, say, eBay, that works in as many countries as it does and has as many listings as it has - there were about 1.5 billion listings of items for sale on eBay in 2021, the scale is just enormous. But actually these researchers from the university of Portsmouth have been working on an algorithm that can spot these visual clues that I talked about; these lines that you see in ivory, the specific colour of ivory. eBay's far from the only organisation that can be exploited to advertise illegal wildlife goods. There was a recent report searching through Facebook listings and finding that animals were being advertised for sale as pets. And Meta, their parent company, have also explicitly said that they've banned that and that they've been fighting the wildlife trade and teaming up with organisations to figure out ways past it. But there are automated ways of doing this and what ivory trade experts and conservationists want these companies to do is to put those additional measures in place to recognise the fact that the scale and the international reach gives them a lot of power. And it puts people in contact across national borders - buyers and sellers - that wouldn't necessarily be able to reach each other if it weren't for these platforms. So there is, albeit unintended, a big role for these platforms in this illegal trade.