Major Online Retailers Acted as Black Market for Endangered Animal Parts

Major Online Retailers Acted as Black Market for Endangered Animal Parts

Saiga antelope are quite the spectacle. Their floppy, trunk-like noses are reminiscent of fleshy side-by-side shotgun barrels, and their round bodies coated in camel-colored fur look like they should squash their skinny, matchstick legs. Two ribbed horns shoot out of their heads, and they scuttle across Central Asian grasslands quickly and nervously. They look like Dr. Seuss characters that popped off animated book pages into living, breathing reality.

They’ve also struggled to maintain a healthy population. Numbering in the millions as recently as the 1990s, the saiga population now hovers around 124,000. Between disease and over-hunting for their horns, which are a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, these charismatic critters face a lot of threats.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated saiga antelope as critically endangered in 2002. They’re also listed under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), a 1973 international agreement that gave a zero-export quota to saiga in 2020. This means the international trade of any saiga antelope parts is forbidden by all 183 countries party to CITES and can result in varying levels of punishment, depending on which nation is prosecuting.

And yet, saiga horn and parts from other CITES-listed species were recently available for purchase on multiple international online marketplaces. Russian third-party seller Store Taxidermy LLC was selling two mounted sets of saiga horns on Amazon, along with more than 160 other pieces of taxidermy preserving animals listed under CITES. Etsy and eBay both had multiple saiga horn listings available for purchase, as well.

Amazon saiga

In response to an inquiry from MeatEater, Amazon removed almost all of Store Taxidermy LLC’s stock from the website, including the saiga horn.

“Third party sellers are independent businesses and are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies when listing items for sale in our store,” an Amazon spokesperson told MeatEater. “We have proactive measures in place to prevent prohibited products from being listed and we continuously monitor our store. Those who violate our policies are subject to action including potential removal of their account. The items in question have been removed.”

Etsy also removed the saiga horn listings shortly after MeatEater submitted an inquiry, but gave no public comment. eBay continues to offer more than 20 listings for saiga horn.

Saiga horn ebay-2.jpg

If anyone in the United States, Canada, or many other nations had tried to buy and import these products before Amazon and Etsy removed them, their purchases would likely have been seized at the border and they could’ve faced charges ranging from extreme fines to multiple years behind bars. The same could still happen to anyone who chooses to purchase such products currently on eBay.

It's Not Always That Simple As is the case with many international wildlife law issues—and strange things for sale on the Internet—there’s a lot of gray area here. First of all, there’s a good chance at least some of these products were falsely advertised or fake. The horns that Store Taxidermy advertised as saiga antelope looked more like African springbok than anything else. In this instance, while they might not technically be prohibited from import into CITES-abiding countries, they would still violate Amazon’s regulations which demand fake or faux products are advertised as such.

Second, it's extremely hard to discern how the Russian Federation would treat the export of some of these products.

“In a lot of countries in Asia, and certainly Russia, which is profoundly impacted by criminal elements, [the sellers] would likely pay to get [an export permit] and then they could issue it,” said Dr. Chris Servheen, a wildlife conservation professor at the University of Montana who dedicated much of his career to studying the international black market trade in bear bile.

International wildlife agreements like CITES don’t have any built-in mechanisms for enforcement. That’s one of the tricky components of stopping wildlife trafficking across international borders: Nations can sign onto CITES, violate it, and not face any major consequences. CITES and other similar agreements are more promises to uphold certain values than they are governing documents, and some nations take them more seriously than others.

Another complicating factor of CITES is the three tiers of protection. CITES-listed species are classified as Appendix I, II, or III. Appendix I species are the most heavily protected; Appendix III the least.

eastern imperial eagle amazon

“I cannot imagine anybody issuing an import permit for an Appendix I species in the USA, Canada, or all of Europe,” Servheen told MeatEater. “Appendix I and Appendix II species also require an export permit from the country of origin. And the country of origin is often the issue because some are much more rigorous about enforcing CITES than others.”

Thankfully, lots of other nations around the world work very hard to uphold their commitment to CITES. In the United States, for example, penalties for violating CITES under the Endangered Species Act can deliver a deafening blow to any criminal’s wallet. For first offenders, fines can reach $2,500. Repeat offenders can receive the statutory maximum, which amounts to $75,000 in fines plus a year behind bars if both civil and criminal penalties hit home.

Penalties for violating CITES under the Lacey Act only add insult to injury.

“Passed in 1900, the Lacey Act was the first federal law to protect wildlife by making it unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase wildlife that is taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of U.S. or international law,” the World Resources Institute said in an article. “The penalty for violating the Lacey Act depends on the market value of the product and whether the offender knew the product was illegal; a misdemeanor violation carries a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment of up to a year, a felony violation carries a $20,000 fine and imprisonment of up to five years.”

Levels of Legality Assuming that the 183 nations party to CITES choose to follow it properly, whether or not these pieces are permitted for trade depends on which CITES appendix the species falls under.

Appendix I species are generally banned from any form of international trade. The few exceptions involve transfers for scientific research, zoos, museums, or if the products in question were in existence before the species was designated under Appendix I. Any trade in Appendix II species requires an export permit from the nation of origin, but export permits must only be issued “if the specimen was legally obtained and if the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species,” according to CITES. Appendix III species are only protected by countries that sign onto such an effort, but usually also require export permits.

Store Taxidermy LLC was selling parts of animals from all three CITES appendices. It’s hard to tell exactly how many pieces fell under each appendix, since some animals like the gray wolf are Appendix I in some countries and Appendix II in others. There were 10 pieces of gray wolf taxidermy for sale, ranging from pelts to ferocious shoulder mounts to looming, full-body displays.

amazon gray wolf

There were other pieces for sale from fully-fledged Appendix I species like the white-tailed eagle and the Eastern imperial eagle.

Since they weren’t being traded for any of the exempted uses, unless the pieces were constructed before 1977 when both species were designated Appendix I, they would have been prohibited from any semblance of international trade.

A majority of the pieces Store Taxidermy LLC was selling were from Appendix II species, which wouldn’t cause quite as much of a stir as the Appendix I bird parts. Saiga antelope, for example, are an Appendix II species. But those two sets of horns are still smoking guns.

The Trouble with Saiga Dr. Hunter Doughty is a human behavioral scientist on contract with the USFWS Combatting Wildlife Trafficking Program team.

“Saiga is on Appendix II, but in 2019, the parties voted to make it a zero export quota species. So, even though it didn't move up an appendix, there is a current prohibition on trade of any saiga product for commercial purposes,” Doughty told MeatEater.

Saiga horn has an incredibly complicated past when it comes to the legality of international trade, something on which Doughty is well versed after dedicating her doctoral thesis to the topic.

“All five of the current saiga range states, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 that basically said they were going to implement their own conservation measures to protect saiga horn,” Doughty said. “By at least 2019, all five countries had implemented trade bans of their own.”

But Doughty has still uncovered multiple instances in which saiga horn made its way into trade with other nations, proof that it was still somehow leaving those five range states.

This is where illegal transactions come into play.

“In an illegal sense, obviously trade is going to happen,” Doughty said. “We have seizures that happen on products all the time. Somewhere along the trade chain, the product picked up a CITES permit. We don’t know where, but by the time it made it into the consumer destination, it had become a legal product from their perspective, even if it wasn’t always that way.”

A 2016 study found that 10,617 seizures of over 750,000 mammal specimens happened in the United States between 2003 and 2013, and 45% of those seizures involved a small group of endangered species that included saiga. Needless to say, saiga are still coming into the country and they aren’t usually bringing necessary permits with them.

“At the end of the day, the illegal wildlife trade is fueled by willing buyers and willing sellers,” MeatEater’s Director of Conservation Ryan Callaghan said. “Unfortunately, the trade and exploitation of threatened and endangered species really does come down to whether or not a consumer gives a shit.”

There’s plenty of evidence that willing buyers and willing sellers exist everywhere. But what about the middleman?

The Not-So-Black Market It’s nice to think you’d have to descend into dusty corners of the dark web if you wanted to find some illegal wildlife products for sale. But many websites hawking such goods are shockingly easy to find. A simple Google search for “saiga horn for sale” spat out this website that sells dried seahorse, ox gallbladders, dried abalone, and saiga horns by the bag. Got $14.5 million laying around?

Amazon, eBay, and Etsy are generally much less shady than these “specialty” online marketplaces. Amazon’s seller regulations regarding animals and animal products says the products in question should be disallowed from the platform. “Animals that are prohibited under the Endangered Species Act,” “illegal wildlife products,” and “products prohibited for sale under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918” are all considered prohibited listings, accompanied by an extensive bulleted list of other no-nos.

white-tailed eagle amazon

But when listings for saiga horn and other endangered species make it onto these reliable websites, buyers without any knowledge of how CITES or the Endangered Species Act works are set up for failure. The product listings lacked language encouraging customers to seek out such permits in the first place, and in most instances, the commercial trade of such products is not considered a scenario worthy of a permit.

Amazon, Etsy, and eBay certainly have their work cut out for them to keep illegal activity to a minimum. A recent study showed that eBay still faces similar struggles in suppressing the use of their platform for the illegal ivory trade. These instances of prohibited activity slipping through the cracks create a metaphorical exposed underbelly of such massive platforms—platforms that generally provide important goods and services for the world’s population.

“If it was pointed out that illegal items were being advertised, these websites would probably get pretty nervous about that because it doesn't do them any good,” Servheen said. “If sellers want to use these sites to sell anything questionable, unless it's really obviously illegal like five pounds of cocaine, the websites are probably going to say, ‘OK, I think we can sell this.’ But mounts of CITES Appendix I species? That's crazy. That's really crazy. I would think they’d run from that as fast as they could.”

MeatEater’s Katie Hill reported Store Taxidermy LLC to Amazon’s public relations staff and filed complaints with Etsy and eBay regarding the saiga horn listings on both websites. Etsy removed the saiga horn listings and Amazon pulled down upwards of 300 pieces of prohibited or questionable taxidermy, including the two sets of saiga horns, from Store Taxidermy’s page. eBay has yet to take any action. Feature graphic via Hunter Spencer.

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