Local Craigslist Ads Are Fueling the Slaughter of Elephants Worldwide

Online classifieds become a new front in the fight to stop illegal ivory sales.

A trinket for sale on Craigslist that the seller claims is made of ivory. (Photo: Craigslist)


Apr 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

An elephant is for sale less than a mile from my house in Portland, Oregon.

No, it's not a real elephant, but it might as well be. It's a tiny, elephant-shaped pendant, carved out of what the seller says is ivory. Of course, if it really is ivory, then an elephant died so someone could wear the image of an elephant around his or her neck.

The pendant is not unique. Not much further away, another person is selling a collection of antique Japanese netsukes, tiny carved statues that all appear to be made from ivory.

In the nearby town of Tigard, another person has a set of antique ivory salad tongs for sale.

Each of these items is probably illegal. But they—and a whole lot of other products made of ivory—are readily available for sale on Craigslist, the popular network of classified ads online. An investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found hundreds of ivory products, including complete tusks, for sale on Craigslist sites across the country.

(Photo: Craigslist)

“The law banning ivory sales may be in place, but then you start looking at some of these sites, and you realize that people are selling ivory online and that the market is alive and well,” said John Calvelli, director of WCS’s "96 Elephants" campaign, named for the number of elephants that poachers kill every day.

IFAW and WCS conducted their “snapshot investigation” for five consecutive days in March. During that time, they looked at Craigslist sites in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu. All four metropolitan areas are known hubs of the illegal ivory trade.

The groups also examined a random selection of Craigslist classified ads posted in several other locations, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

They found ivory for sale on every site, with ads listing 456 ivory products, including complete tusks; another 84 items that appeared to be ivory; and 75 related products such as a footstool made from an elephant’s leg.

Added up, the asking prices for all the ivory and related products listed on 28 Craigslist sites over the five-day investigation totaled $1.5 million. That would translate to many millions of dollars a year in sales on those Craigslist sites alone.

“And of course, there are hundreds of Craigslist sites” in the U.S., Calvelli said.

WCS and IFAW contacted Craigslist to give their findings. As a result, the company has now added ivory and related wildlife products to its list of items that are prohibited for sale on its sites. Calvelli commended this, although he wished the information were more prominently posted.

He would also like Craigslist to automatically weed out ivory products from its listings, just as eBay did several years ago.

Craigslist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ivory sales are illegal under federal law, with the exception of antique items that were originally imported prior to 1990 (and which must carry documentation of their antique status). Several states have added their own bans, including New Jersey, which passed the legislation last summer.

Oregon may soon follow New Jersey’s example. At about 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the state Senate passed a bill that would ban the sale of all ivory within Oregon. It will now go to the state’s House of Representatives for its vote.

“This will give law enforcement one more tool to shut this down,” said state Sen. Mark Hass, who has championed the bill.

This investigation hammers home a sad fact: The United States is the world’s second- or third-largest market for products directly linked to the slaughter of wild elephants. “People are kind of shocked when you start talking about the fact that the U.S. is a major market for ivory,” Calvelli said.

The U.S needs to cap its own illegal ivory trade if it hopes to stop it in other countries, he said. “It is hypocritical of us to point a finger at anyone when we haven’t actually dealt with our issues here,” Calvelli said. “Let’s show that we can deal with our issues here in a reasonable manner, and we can then use our leadership to help make sure that these things are changed not just here but around the world.”