Fifteen years after the sale of most newly collected elephant ivory was banned, Americans are still buying large amounts of it over the Internet, while traveling in foreign countries and even from some domestic craftsmen, according to a report issued yesterday by a group that tracks the sales.
The United States is the most aggressive nation in seizing illegal ivory entering the country, but it is a growing destination for ivory sold illegally over the Internet, the report said. It added that the online site eBay averages 1,000 ivory auctions per week, some involving Chinese dealers who appear to be flouting international laws and offering to label their shipments "bone" rather than ivory.
The report by Traffic, a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union, is the first major assessment of ivory sales in the United States since the ban went into effect in 1989.
"Americans should be aware that there's still a problem with elephant poaching and loss to the illegal ivory trade," said Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund, which helped fund the report. "That means it's still very difficult to know which ivory products are legal and which are not. And so our message is, 'Don't buy it, and don't take that chance.' "
The report said more than 32,000 ivory items were legally imported between 1995 and 2002 -- mostly older pieces or those from trophy hunts -- and that 8,300 items were seized. The seizures include tourist souvenirs as well as commercial shipments, and Traffic said they represent just a small fraction of the illegal ivory trade.
"It's hard to say what part of the iceberg they're finding when it comes to ivory," said Simon Habel, North American director of Traffic. "But what they're finding clearly indicates that there's an active ivory trade going on in the U.S."
The ivory ban was imposed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) after the number of African elephants declined by almost 50 percent in the 1980s. Some poaching has continued -- CITES recently estimated 4,000 elephants are killed for their ivory every year -- but elephant populations have stabilized in some parts of Africa.
Under the treaty and American law, trade in ivory collected before 1989 remains legal in most states, and that allows recently collected ivory to come onto the market undetected, Traffic's report concluded. It also said that the ivory sales were occurring over the Internet with little or no oversight.
Hani Durzy, spokesman for eBay, said the company is concerned about the potential for selling illegal ivory and is willing to help law enforcement if asked. But he said that "we can't say 'no' to the sale of ivory, because it wouldn't be fair to those who sell legal ivory."
Habel said the domestic ivory finishing industry appears to be small, but several businesses sell raw ivory in blocks or tusk "hollows" and advertise their use for gun and rifle grips, knife handles and pool cues.
South Africa and Namibia have petitioned CITES to resume legal ivory sales. Both have been successful in controlling poaching, and their elephant populations are not endangered. Experts say poachers are active in much of Africa and would step up the killing if new ivory were legal anywhere.