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Despite efforts of law enforcement, tech companies and other stakeholders, the illegal online trade in wildlife products continues to increase. A particular problem in tackling this online illicit trade is the misdescription of item materials, making the search for internationally CITES regulated materials, such as elephant ivory, challenging. We investigated the issue of misrepresentation of materials in item descriptions by studying the trade in netsuke, carved objects, attached to the cord of the kimono, originally from 17th century Japan, that are often made of elephant ivory. The study, conducted on the online marketplace, eBay, in the United Kingdom, shows that elephant ivory is still sold in spite of eBay’s policy on ivory. While the netsuke trade is small, elephant ivory was most frequently described as cow bone. Our results also indicated that, among the items identified as elephant ivory, only a small fraction were actually detected and removed by eBay. To discourage the sale of ivory items, eBay should increase its efforts to implement its policy banning the trade in ivory. Further, eBay could consider additional restrictions on the range of words that can be used by the vendors in all of the item listing fields. Keywords CITES, cyber-crime, e-commerce, enforcement, wildlife trade, policy Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a Convention on International Trade in Endangered resurgence in the demand for illegal wildlife and its prod- Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) ban on the international commercial sales of elephant ivory ucts (Grieser-Johns & Thomson, 2005; Nellemann et al., since 1990, the exploitation of African and Asian ele- 2016). This has resulted in a multi-billion-dollar trans- phants for their ivory is still an on-going threat national industry, potentially ranked fourth among the (Milliken et al., 2016). Killings of elephants for their most lucrative illicit trades (Nellemann et al., 2016; ivory reached a peak between 2011 and 2013, as well Warchol, 2004). Initiatives have been developed to cur- as the continued illegal trade in other wildlife, leading tail this illicit trade since the early 2010s, with a renewed to the first London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade focus arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the that aimed to develop a coordinated commitment to potential for emerging infectious diseases arising from tackling the illegal wildlife trade (Wittemyer et al., 2014). the trade. The trade in illegal wildlife not only impacts The increased focus on the illegal wildlife trade, the the target species but also local economies, societies and expansion of internet access and subsequent growth of the environment (Haken, 2011; Karesh et al., 2005). Among the many species threatened by the illegal wild- life trade, concerns have been raised over the rapid 1 Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, School of Anthropology decline in African elephant populations (Loxodonta afri- and Conservation, University of Kent, Kent, UK cana) due to the dramatic rise in the demand for ivory Received 15 September 2020; Accepted 28 October 2020 products (Bennett, 2015; Maisels et al., 2013). Corresponding Author: For centuries elephant ivory has been regarded as a Sofia Venturini, Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, School of luxury commodity, often associated with status and Anthropology and Conservation, Marlowe Building, University of Kent, wealth, especially among Asian cultures (Somerville, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NR, UK. 2017; Stiles, 2004, UNEP et al., 2013). Despite the Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https:// creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 Tropical Conservation Science online markets have led to a rapid increase in online netsuke carvers started using other materials as substi- trade by facilitating peer to peer exchange across e-com- tutes, such as other animal ivories (including walrus and merce and social media platforms (Kramer et al., 2017; mammoth ivory), porcelain or vegetable ivory Yu & Jia, 2015). Open 24/7, e-commerce and social (Milhaupt, 2009; St Aubyn, 1987). Modern cheaply media platforms provide new and easier routes to adver- manufactured reproductions of netsuke made of synthet- tise illegal wildlife and its products with an increased ic ivory substitutes (e.g. resin and celluloid) can also be level of anonymity (Kramer et al., 2017; McCrea- found on sale (Milhaupt, 2009). Recent studies into Steele, 2017). Among the many e-commerce platforms, ivory markets have often reported the presence of net- eBay has been identified as a significant channel for sales suke made of ivory on display in retail shops (Kramer of potentially illegal wildlife (e.g. Alfino & Roberts, et al., 2017; Lau et al., 2016). 2020; Hernandez-Castro & Roberts, 2015; IFAW, Given the use of code words, often based on substi- 2007). During an investigation, the International Fund tute materials, to disguise the online trade in elephant for Animal Welfare (IFAW, 2007) identified 400 ele- ivory, this study focuses on a particular item that is phant ivory items for sale on this platform in the UK. likely to contain elephant ivory, netsuke. In this study Consequently, in 2008 eBay was the first online market- we aimed to: a) determine the extent of the trade of place that pledged to ban the sale of ivory on its site netsuke containing elephant ivory on eBay UK; b) iden- (Coghlan, 2008). However, ivory continues to be sold tify the frequency with which netsuke made of elephant on eBay despite the company policy that bans the sale ivory are advertised as other materials; c) determine the of any products from threatened or CITES Appendix I frequency with which eBay ends listings of items made of animals and specifically mentions ivory products (Alfino elephant ivory in accordance with their policy. & Roberts, 2020; Hernandez-Castro & Roberts, 2015). The number of online advertisements displaying ele- Methods phant ivory as well as other animal products has, over the years, increased exponentially (ICPO-INTERPOL & This study received ethical approval from the Research IFAW, 2013; Krishnasamy & Stoner, 2016, Lau et al., and Ethics Committee of the School of Anthropology 2016). Due to the internet’s ability to reach a wide audi- and Conservation, University of Kent. ence, difficulties in prosecutions, presence of legislative loopholes, insufficient enforcement and limited capacity Data Source and Acquisition to conduct online monitoring, it has made tackling the For the purpose of this study, eBay was chosen as the online trade challenging (Hernandez-Castro & Roberts, study website, as recent studies have shown that the 2015; ICPO-INTERPOL & IFAW, 2014; Lau et al., trade in elephant ivory is still on-going in spite of 2016). This is further exacerbated through the continu- the company’s policy (Alfino & Roberts, 2020; ous mutation of the online trade, hindering detection Hernandez-Castro & Roberts, 2015; Kramer et al., and resulting in enforcement agencies having to con- 2017). Specifically, searches were conducted on eBay stantly adapt their monitoring to identify illicit online UK (ebay.co.uk) using the term “netsuke”. The results traders (Yu & Jia, 2015). were then narrowed to the category “Antiques” with Detecting illegal sales of ivory items is particularly item location set to “Worldwide”. difficult as the word “ivory” can be used to describe a Item details were recorded on the 17th March 2018, a colour as well as the material (e.g. elephant, walrus and Saturday; a day after what has been found by previous hippo) and its substitutes (e.g. vegetable ivory) research to be the weekly peak for advertisements (Hernandez-Castro & Roberts, 2015; Yeo et al., 2017). uploading (Yeo et al., 2017). Those items identified as Due to the increased efforts to curb the trade in elephant being made of elephant ivory were then revisited a ivory, vendors have adopted the use of code words to month later (17th of April 2018) to determine whether disguise the sale of often illicit items (Alfino & Roberts, they had either been removed (it was not possible to 2020). This makes tackling this illicit trade even more determine whether the listing was removed by the sellers challenging for enforcement agencies (Alfino & or eBay), sold, gone unsold or were still advertised. Roberts, 2020; Yu & Jia, 2015). It should be noted that each posting was considered Netsuke are small carved objects, used in Japan to to represent a single data point even when a group of prevent the inro (a small decorative container hanging items was sold within a single advertisement. This mea- from the kimono cord) from slipping off (St Aubyn, sure was taken as the objective of the study was not to 1987). Today, they are traded as a collector’s item with the largest international markets in the EU, the UK and report quantities of ivory but to represent the level of USA (Milhaupt, 2009). Traditionally, netsuke were incorrect identification of materials, and for each adver- made of either wood or elephant ivory. However, with tisement, only one box was present containing the implementation of ivory trade regulations after 1989, materials under the structure of eBay’s website. Venturini and Roberts 3 Only advertisements containing the object name Additional categories were defined for the other “netsuke” in the “product type” and/or “title” field materials encountered: (a) “Other ivories” (a generic cat- box were selected. Items advertised as netsuke but were egory), which included those items that appeared to be not specifically netsuke (e.g. books on netsuke), were similar to animal ivory, but a more precise identification excluded. Finally, duplicate items were removed. The was not possible; (b) “walrus ivory”; (c) “mammoth dataset comprised a total of 3,214 items. ivory”; (d) “hippopotamus ivory”; and (e) “whale As mentioned previously, netsuke were chosen as the ivory”. For items that were made of natural substitutes, focus of the study to circumvent the problem of identi- two categories were used: (f) “bones” including antler; fying code words and phrases used by sellers to describe and (g) “nut” including tagua nut and walnut. Finally, elephant ivory objects online. As highlighted by previous two categories were identified for manufactured ivory studies (Alfino & Roberts, 2020; IFAW, 2014; Yu & Jia, substitutes: (h) “artificial substitutes” including celluloid 2015), code words may change creating problems around and resin; and (i) “other materials” such as stones and detection. By using the word “netsuke”, an object typi- porcelains. Those items that could not be readily identi- cally made of elephant ivory, as a search term, we aim to fied were classified as “unknown” (j). overcome the issue of unknown code words. Cohen’s kappa analysis was conducted in order to assess the consistency specifically in the identification Visual Identification of Items Material of elephant ivory (Cohen, 1968). The analysis was car- ried out by the author and another researcher, who had The attributes of advertisements considered the most some experience in elephant ivory identification from relevant to this study were the title, item description, images, based on a sample of 100 items from the entire items specific (“primary material”) and item images. dataset. Given that it was not possible or ethically desirable to obtain the physical objects for analysis, the most reliable indicator for the identification of elephant ivory, Results Schreger lines, were used (Espinoza et al., 1992). Cohen’s Kappa Analysis Elephant ivory’s Schreger lines are a unique pattern derived from concentric circles that overlap to form a Cohen’s kappa analysis showed a moderate level of cross-hatched pattern with an angle of >115 in the agreement (k ¼ 0.54, p< 0.01, n ¼ 100) in the identifica- cross-section. Elephant ivory differs from that of mam- tion of elephant ivory and non-elephant ivory among the moth ivory where the Schreger lines cross to form an two graders. Of the 17 items found to be elephant ivory angle of <90 . Photographs present in advertisements (out of a 100 items sample), the two graders agreed on 11 were visually inspected to identify whether the item of them. The difference in the use of the categories, how- was made of elephant ivory. ever, was due to the different familiarity of the two To increase the effectiveness of the detection and researchers with the recognition and identification of narrow the biases, other types of ivories (e.g. walrus, Schreger lines. After discussion, a second analysis was whale and hippopotamus) were identified through their conducted, which resulted in a good level of agreement distinctive cross-sections (e.g. walrus ivory has concen- (14 out of 17 identified elephant ivory items) between the tric rings in the cementum and marbled secondary den- two graders (k ¼ 0.84, p< 0.01, n ¼ 100). tine), bones and antlers (Espinoza et al., 1992). As the study focused solely on the recognition of elephant Material Identification ivory, items were grouped into four categories to take Each of the 3,214 items was grouped according to the into account the degree of uncertainty in identifying the materials reported by the vendors on the primary mate- materials from images: rial field on eBay. The majority of items on sale were Category 1 (C1): Highly likely to be elephant ivory – described as “wood” (67.3%, n ¼ 2,162). The second Schreger lines clearly visible in multiple sections on the most frequent category was the general category netsuke; Category 2 (C2): Likely elephant ivory – Schreger “bone” (16.0%, n ¼ 512), comprising of “cow bone”, lines clearly visible, but only in a single section of the “ox bone”, “water buffalo bone” and “stag antler”. For 6.3% (n ¼ 201) the material was not provided netsuke; (Figure 1). Items openly sold as fangs, mammoth tusk, Category 3 (C3): Suspected elephant ivory – Schreger whale baleen or walrus made up only 0.1% (n ¼ 11) of lines not clearly visible, only faintly discernible; Category 4 (C4): Possible elephant ivory – Schreger the overall items (Figure 1). Finally, only one vendor lines not visible due to poor image quality, but the item listed an item as ivory (reported as “IVERY”). None appearance looked like elephant ivory (based on colour of the vendors listing elephant ivory items (n ¼ 144) dis- and texture). played details of having an Article 10 certificate 4 Tropical Conservation Science Figure 1. Percentage of Materials Found on Ebay Based on Ebay Sellers (White) and Author (Red) Identification. Categories were created by the author. Elephant ivory (EI) has been divided into four categories that take into account the uncertainty of identifying elephant ivory through images (C1 being highly likely to be elephant ivory, and C4 possible elephant ivory but poor image quality). (according to Council Regulation No. 338/97 Annex A buffalo bone”, 42.8% (n ¼ 218) were confirmed as being of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations as part of the made of a type of bone. The authors classified 8.2% CITES regulations implemented by the EU). While (n ¼ 42) of the items described as bone as belonging to only one vendor displayed a certificate of authenticity, the elephant ivory categories C1 and C2, and 5.9% even though the item was not in accordance with CITES (n ¼ 30) as C3 and C4 (Figure 3). In addition, 22.1% regulations. (n ¼ 113) of the items were identified as other ivories, Of the items classified by the authors (rather than as including mammoth (5.1%, n ¼ 26), whale (3.7%, described by sellers on eBay), 61.9% (n ¼ 1,988) were n ¼ 19) and walrus ivory (2.1%, n ¼ 11) (Figure 3). categorised as “wood”, while 8.3% (n ¼ 258) as “bone” (Figure 1). Of the 144 items (4.9%) identified as either Enforcement of eBay’s Policy likely (C1 and C2) or suspected (C3 and C4) elephant A month after the first data collection, all netsuke cat- ivory, 50.0% (n ¼ 72) were considered likely to be ele- egorised as elephant ivory by the authors were revisited phant ivory (C1 and C2) (Figure 1). Finally, 4.8% under the assumption that, if eBay was effectively (n ¼ 153) of the total number of items were identified enforcing its policy on ivory, the items would have as made of “other ivories” (generic category), 1.0% been removed. (n ¼ 31) as “mammoth ivory” and 0.6% (n ¼ 20) as Of the C1 and C2 elephant ivory items identified, “whale ivory”. 53.0% (n ¼ 38) had been sold, while only one had been removed before the sale ended. Among the items not Comparison of the Identified Items sold, 48.0% were relisted (n ¼ 16), while the rest were To understand what materials were most often misrep- either still on sale or no longer available. It is worth resented, a comparison was made between the materials noting that, between data collection and the first analy- declared by the vendors and the authors’ identification sis of the images, 8 additional items were removed. Of based on the images. Animal ivory materials (including these items, the original material could not be assessed as elephant ivory and other animal ivory items) were the the pictures were no longer available on eBay, and were, most incorrectly reported (Table 1). Among the items therefore, excluded from the analysis. Assuming that the where the vendor did not specify a material (NA, 8 items removed by eBay before the author’s image iden- n ¼ 200), 9.0% (n ¼ 18) were categorised as C1 or C2 tification were likely to be from elephant ivory C1 and elephant ivory, 12.5% (n ¼ 25) as C3 and C4 elephant C2, this could mean that overall 11.3% (n ¼ 9) of the ivory and 17.0% (n ¼ 34) as other ivories, although, it items in the first two categories had been removed. None of the other animal ivory items (n ¼ 75) prohib- was not possible to categorise all of them (Figure 2). Of the 512 items described by the vendors as generic ited by eBay in their Terms and Conditions were “bone”, “cow bone”, “ox-bone, “stag antler” and “water removed. Only one item, openly listed as “walrus Venturini and Roberts 5 Table 1. Proportion of Identified Item Materials by the Author as Made of Ivory Including Other Animal Ivories (OAI) and Elephant Ivory (EI) in Each Category of Material Reported by the Vendors in the ‘Primary Material’ Section. Author ID Vendors ID OAI EI Hippopotamus Mammoth Walrus Whale C1 C2 C3 C4 Animal ivory 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Artificial substitutes 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Bone 1.6 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.2 Cow bone 0.1 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Elephant ivory 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Mammoth tusk 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 NA 0.5 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.5 0.3 0.2 0.0 0.0 Nut 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Organic 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Other 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Ox bone 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.4 Stag antler 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.8 0.0 0.0 Water buffalo 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Wood 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Figure 2. Percentage of Items Identified by the Author per Non-Identified (NA) Materials on Ebay. Categories were assigned by the author. Elephant ivory (E.I.) has been divided into four categories that take into account the uncertainty of identifying elephant ivory through images (C1 being highly likely to be elephant ivory, and C4 possible elephant ivory but poor image quality). fang”, was apparently taken down after the data was presence of Schreger lines, constituted a small portion of the overall number of items on sale (2.2%). However, collected but before the authors could identify it from the actual amount of elephant ivory advertised is the images. likely to be higher, rising to 4.5%, if the unidentified items and the suspected elephant ivory items are Discussion included (i.e. elephant ivory items from categories C3 Netsuke are popular carved items found both on online and C4). and antique markets (ICPO-INTERPOL & IFAW, As previous studies have also highlighted (ICPO- 2014; Kramer et al., 2017), and are made of a variety INTERPOL & IFAW, 2013, 2014), the generic category of natural materials ranging from elephant ivory to veg- ‘bone’ was found to be the most misused, with the most etable ivory or artificial materials such as resin and frequently used terms being ‘cow bone’ and ‘ox bone’. porcelain (Kramer et al., 2017; St. Aubyn, 1987). The only category, that did not include elephant ivory, In this study, we found that netsuke made of was ‘stag antler’, most likely due to its characteristic elephant ivory, identified from images based on the morphology. However, it was found that one seller 6 Tropical Conservation Science Figure 3. Percentage of Materials Identified by the Author SV for the Materials Identified by Ebay’s Vendors as “Bone” (Red), “Cow Bone” (White), “Ox Bone”(Blue), “Stag Antler” (Black) and “Water Buffalo Bone”(Olive), Reported Under the Section “Primary Material.” Elephant ivory (EI) has been divided into four categories that take into account the uncertainty of identifying elephant ivory through images (C1 being highly likely to be elephant ivory, and C4 possible elephant ivory but poor image quality). used this category to identify a number of mammoth adequate certifications may be due to a lack of aware- ivory items, whose characteristic colouration could be ness of regulations and a limited understanding of the considered to resemble that of deer antler. During the requirements for selling elephant ivory items (Yeo et al., analysis, it was also observed that the category ‘bone’ 2017). However, given the significant coverage around was used to describe most of the other animal ivories. the implementation of the UK’s Ivory Act, this is likely Further, many items made of an artificial substitute were to have significantly increased awareness. sold under ‘bone’, indicating either a lack of adequate identification skills by the sellers or the intent to make Implications for Conservation the item appear more valuable. Ivory is but one of a number of wildlife products sold on Turning to eBay’s enforcement of their policy on ivory, eBay (with varying degrees of legality), ranging from 7.0% of the items observed were made of animal ivory timber products and traditional medicines to live fish (excluding elephant ivory from categories C3 and C4, but and orchids. To ensure that any trade is legal, platforms including all other animals ivory). This clearly indicates need to provide sufficient information on regulations and that, despite eBay’s strict policy on Animal and Wildlife export requirements in their Term & Conditions for sell- Products (eBay, 2018a), there is still an on-going trade in ers and buyers, and support law enforcement by taking ivory, mostly concealed as other non-restricted materials. active actions in removing non-compliant listings. Moreover, in four instances the material of origin (e.g. Further, e-companies should require sellers to provide ivory, tusk, walrus, whale) was stated by the sellers in evidence of the correct permits within advertisements the ‘primary material’ section violating eBay’s listing con- (e.g. Article 10 certificates), and/or make buyers aware ditions and policy (eBay, 2018b) without any noticeable of the need for permits if required for trade (e.g. CITES intervention from the website’s monitors; all four items export/import permits, phytosanitary certificates). In the were never removed during the one month period. UK, once the Ivory Act (2018) comes into force, it will Due to the nature of netsuke, all elephant ivory found were carved, which according to CITES regulations can prohibit the sale of elephant ivory, but for a few exemp- be traded for commercial purpose only when acquired tions, such as items of the very highest quality that will require the application for appropriate certificates. Even pre-Convention (“antique” ivory; CITES Conf. 10.10 at a basic level platforms could make it a requirement that Rev. CoP18). However, none of the international sellers mentioned the need for CITES permit in the item sellers provide information as to whether the species is on description nor any of the UK sellers complied to the CITES Appendices; the platform preloved.co.uk has Article 12 regulation (EU Regulation No 1007/2011) of been doing this for a number of years. After one month, it appears eBay had only removed the European Union or made any reference to the newly passed UK Ivory Act (2018), a landmark piece of legis- between 1.3% and 6.9% of the elephant ivory items. lation aimed at closing UK’s domestic ivory markets. Given eBay’s own commitment to regulating the sale Given the small volume of ivory items, the absence of of ivory across its platforms (Coghlan, 2008; eBay, Venturini and Roberts 7 2018a), and as a member of the Coalition to End Funding Wildlife Trafficking Online (2016), we suggest eBay The author(s) received no financial support for the research, and other platforms focus more effort on this issue. authorship, and/or publication of this article. Based on this study, such efforts could include the tar- geting of the “primary materials” and “description” sec- ORCID iDs tions. Further, reporting systems need to be significantly Sofia Venturini https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0979-0761 improved as, based on observations (Anon pers. comm., David L. Roberts https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6788-2691 Roberts pers. obs.), when ivory and other potentially illegal wildlife products are reported through eBay’s References reporting system, very few are ever removed. However, Alfino, S., & Roberts, D. L. (2020). Code word usage in the given the number of people using online platforms, the online ivory trade across four European Union member challenge of detecting illegal activity is significant. Big e- states. Oryx, 54(4), 494–498. tech companies, like eBay, have the resources, as well as Bennett, E. L. (2015). Legal ivory trade in a corrupt world and importantly the data, that could be mobilised to tackle its impact on African elephant populations. Conservation this challenge of illegal wildlife trade. 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Tropical Conservation Science – SAGE
Published: Dec 24, 2020
Keywords: CITES; cyber-crime; e-commerce; enforcement; wildlife trade; policy
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