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Code word usage in the online ivory trade across four European Union member states

  • Sara Alfino (a1) and David L. Roberts (a2)


Illegal wildlife trade is a rapidly evolving environmental crime that is expanding through e-commerce. Because of the nature of the internet, detection of online illegal wildlife and enforcement has proven to be difficult and time-consuming, often based on manual searches through the use of keywords. As a result of scrutiny, traders in elephant ivory now use code words to disguise the trade, thus adding an additional level of complexity. Here we look at the use of 19 code words and phrases associated with the online trade in elephant ivory items on eBay across four European Union (EU) member states. Results show that, in spite of eBay's ban on ivory, elephant ivory is still being offered for sale across all four sites we searched (183 ivory items offered by 113 sellers during 18 January–5 February 2017). Beyond the violation of eBay's Terms and Conditions, other potential illegalities included offers for sale across international borders without mention of CITES permit requirements, and the offer of ivory that may be considered unworked, which violates EU regulations. Code word usage was found to be consistent across all four EU countries. Although the rise of online wildlife trade is of concern, the growth of global markets may homogenize conventions within trading communities, such as in this case the code words used. Homogenization of conventions may therefore offer opportunities for tackling the illegal online trade in wildlife.


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Also at: Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, School of Anthropology & Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK



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