- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 5, 2013

BANGKOK (AP) - Conservationists say there’s a new threat to the survival of Africa’s endangered elephants that may be just as deadly as poachers’ bullets: the black-market trade of ivory in cyberspace.

Illegal tusks are being bought and sold on countless Internet forums and shopping websites worldwide, including Internet giant Google, with increasing frequency, according to activists. And wildlife groups attending the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok this week are calling on global law enforcement agencies to do something about it.

The elephant slaughter, which has reached crisis proportions unheard of in two decades, is largely being driven by skyrocketing demand in Asia, where tusks are often carved into tourist trinkets and ornaments.

“The Internet is anonymous, it’s open 24 hours a day for business, and selling illegal ivory online is a low-risk, high-profit activity for criminals,” Tania McCrea-Steele of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told The Associated Press on Tuesday from London.

In one investigation last year, IFAW found 17,847 elephant products listed on 13 websites in China. The country, which conservationists call the world’s top destination for “blood ivory” from Africa, is not alone.

IFAW says illegal ivory trading online is an issue within the U.S., including on eBay, and it is rife on some websites in Europe, particularly nations with colonial links to Africa.

It is often advertised with code words like “ox-bone,” “white gold,” “unburnable bone,” or “cold to the touch,” and shipped through the mail.

Another conservation advocacy group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, said Tuesday that Google Japan’s shopping site now has 10,000 ads promoting ivory sales.

About 80 percent of the ads are for “hanko,” small wooden stamps inlaid with ivory lettering that are widely used in Japan to affix signature seals to official documents; the rest are carvings and other small objects.

The trade is legal within Japan, but banned by Google’s own policies. The EIA said hanko sales are a “major demand driver for elephant ivory.”

“While elephants are being mass slaughtered across Africa to produce ivory trinkets, it is shocking to discover that Google, with the massive resources it has at its disposal, is failing to enforce its own policies designed to help protect endangered elephants,” said Allan Thorton, EIA’s U.S.-based president.

Google said in an emailed response to The Associated Press that “ads for products obtained from endangered or threatened species are not allowed on Google. As soon as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them.”

The EIA said it had written a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Feb. 22 urging the company to remove the ads because they violate Google’s own policies. It said Google had not responded to the letter or taken down the advertisements.

About 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants were believed to have roamed the African continent. Today, just several hundred thousand are left.

As Asian economies have grown, so has their demand for ivory. Over the last 12 months, an estimated 32,000 elephants were killed in Africa, according to the Born Free Foundation, which says black-market ivory sells for as much as $1,300 per pound, a huge multibillion-dollar business.

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