Craigslist singled out in latest IFAW investigation

Graphic courtesy of IFAW.

Informed by my career at eBay and as a student of the illegal wildlife trade, I have developed a keen interest in how wildlife traffickers use the internet to facilitate transactions. My last post, at least in small part, celebrated the decline of such sales on traditional e-commerce platforms in recent years.

One notable exception to this trend that I omitted is Craigslist. Indeed, Craigslist is often neglected in the literature on this matter relative to eBay, Alibaba, and others in that industry despite lagging behind them where policies and enforcement are concerned.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Conservation Society released a study in late April (“Elephant vs. Mouse”), however, that might well draw new attention and pressure to Craigslist’s role as a conduit in the illegal wildlife trade, especially ivory. An excerpt from IFAW’s press release announcing the report:

The investigation, which collected data from 28 of Craigslist’s US city-sites between March 16–20,  found many instances of ivory products being sold. Investigators tracked 522 postings offering more than 600 items, for a combined asking price of nearly $1.5 million. Extrapolated to a full year, this would yield over 6,600 items with a list price exceeding $15 million. And it wasn’t just ivory – we discovered ottomans made of elephant feet, African warthog tusks, elephant-leather boots – and most of it was offered on a no-questions-asked basis.

Note that this study was limited to just 28 city-sites; a site-wide analysis of Craigslist would yield a lot more wildlife products for sale. Of the cities reviewed, major port and transit cities such as Boston, Atlanta, New York and San Francisco had the greatest number of offending ads. As you might expect, the San Francisco Craigslist site had the most wildlife products available, likely due it its proximity to Asia, from which a lot of the world’s supply and demand for these items emanate.

The most popular items containing ivory were musical instruments, followed by myriad kitsch items from statuettes to trinkets. Only 3.4% of the 522 postings advertised that the seller had the appropriate CITES-compliant documents available.

Even before IFAW’s investigation, Craigslist had a policy that prohibited the sale of wildlife products. Craigslist can be faulted, though, for not making this policy readily available to its customers. In IFAW’s assessment, the policy could only be found if you dug “deep into their back pages”. And it wasn’t until this investigation, after conversations between IFAW and Craiglist’s CEO Jim Buckmaster, that the company explicitly called out ivory among its “prohibited items”.

This was a laudable gesture, no doubt—one that signals Craigslist’s willingness to cooperate with conservation efforts. Yet articulating sound policy isn’t even half the battle. Enforcement is the real test of a company’s resolve, as it requires vigilant policing of active listings and extensive partnership with advocacy groups and government agencies. eBay is best-positioned to assist Craigslist in developing its enforcement regime for two reasons: (1) eBay owns a roughly a third of Craigslist and thus has influence, and (2) eBay, having itself been the subject of several IFAW investigations, already adopted sophisticated enforcement mechanisms and other best practices. Lest you think I’m biased in favor of my employer, IFAW specifically identified eBay as a model for Craigslist as it has “shown a willingness to work hand in hand with law enforcement and conservation NGOs to help reduce crime on [its] platforms”.

If you would like to see Craigslist to better enforce its wildlife policies and protect endangered species, please sign this petition. To quote IFAW, help make Craigslist be “a great place to buy a bike, not a dead elephant.”

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