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Illegal Wildlife Trade Is Thriving on Amazon and eBay

Ecommerce giants Amazon and eBay found guilty of advertising banned invasive species.
Lamium purpureum. Image: Flickr/USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Whoever said looks don't matter never considered the voracious beauty of invasive species.

Consumers' desire for exotic plants and animals has brought about the slow death of ecosystems around the world. Their rarity makes these species desirable, but it also makes them dangerous to native flora and fauna. And now, Amazon and eBay are being accused of violating strict wildlife laws by freely allowing invasive species to be hosted and sold on their marketplaces.


Both websites have permitted the advertisement and shipment of invasive plant species such as the floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides), water fern (Azolla filiculoides) and parrot's feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum) into the United Kingdom, according to a report from The Guardian.

Invasive parrot's feather. Image: Wikipedia/Marie-Lan Nguyen

Each of these plants has been banned from entering the country due to their rapid, detrimental growth in local waterways that suffocates important aquatic habitats. Any retailer found guilty of selling the prohibited species could face a fine of £5,000 ($7,225 US) and up to six months in prison.

However, at the time of publication, eBay was hosting several live bids for these plants, and Amazon only removed their listings for parrot's feather once informed of their possible illegal conduct by The Guardian. It's unclear how many transactions resulted in the shipment of banned species into the UK, but the numerous feedback scores of these sellers could indicate thousands of potentially illegal auctions. Neither Amazon nor eBay have responded to Motherboard's requests for comment regarding their plans to regulate illegal plant sales.


This isn't the first time ecommerce websites have been criticized for allowing illegal wildlife trade to flourish under their governance. A consumer study, led by Swiss researchers from ETH Zurich and published in 2015 in the journal Conservation Biology, monitored the trade of two-thirds of the world's flora on online marketplaces, including eBay. Using a software program that referenced the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's invasive species database, the team tracked listings across each of these platforms for 50 days.


On eBay alone, 2,625 known plant types were auctioned over that time period. Of that group, 510 were invasive to at least one region in the world, and 35 of them belonged to the IUCN's list of 100 worst invasive species.

Invasive pennywort. Image: Wikipedia/Velela

According to the Swiss team's findings, passionfruit (Passiflora edulis) listings appeared approximately 90 times per day on these marketplaces. Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) was offered on average more than 80 times per day, and is currently prohibited in some parts of the United States.

The problem with policing the online sale of invasive species is twofold. For one, sales often occur between parties in different parts of the world, making it impossible to enforce agriculture regulations in countries with lax import and export laws.

Among the vendors intending to ship banned species into the UK, each is located in Latvia, Australia, Poland, and Germany, respectively. In 2014, the Australian Invasive Species council tracked the sale of illegal Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) seeds from the US, Hong Kong, and China. And according to the ETC Zurich study, the online market for banned flora is becoming even more globalized, thanks to the internet's unrestricted trade regulations. Countries that haven't historically exported invasive plant species, such as South Africa, are now showing up on the map.

There are also limitations to what law enforcement can do to prevent invasive species from being purchased and shipped across state and country lines. In a white paper on ecommerce and illegal wildlife trade, the US Department of the Interior admitted there's no comprehensive federal guide for monitoring this activity. Many states still lack a standard means for communicating with non-registered internet sellers. Global regulation of these black markets only materialized fairly recently through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and even then, the international agreement doesn't restrict the trade of many invasive species, and isn't adhered to by all countries.


Black market vendors are also turning to social media to push their products. Orchids, in particular, are being sold illegally across borders with little recourse. Sellers have no need to advertise anonymously on dark web marketplaces because the legal system is so poorly enforced.

Seized African elephant ivory slated for destruction. Image: Flickr/USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Some websites have made efforts to curb the trade of banned wildlife products on their platforms, such as ecommerce giant Alibaba, which signed a memorandum with the watchdog group TRAFFIC in 2009 to address demands for endangered animal parts and educate their customers through online ads, social media, and messaging apps. In 2009, eBay also partnered with TRAFFIC to inform its users of the ongoing illegal ivory trade.

As of right now, there's little incentive for websites like Amazon and eBay to proactively comply with countries' invasive species laws. Both companies told The Guardian that if postings violated their guidelines, they could be taken down, and the shop owners could have their accounts disabled. However, neither indicated they were actively searching listings for potential culprits.

Until internet marketplaces decide to prioritize the environment, it's up to consumers to report questionable listings and be aware of their country's wildlife restrictions. No pretty flower or vine is worth federal punishment or jeopardizing the health of native habitats. If you want to see some nature, you can always just visit your local parks instead.