Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Endangered Species on eBay

Hawaii (bottom left) is really far
away from the mainland!
I want to talk about endangered snails.  I know, this blog is supposed to be about Sound and the Sea, but since I happen to also be very interested in conservation, I can't help crawling back on land sometimes.  Living in Hawaii makes conservation even more important to me.  Hawaii is the most isolated island chain in the world.  It is about 2,000 miles from Hawaii to the nearest mainland - that's at least a 5 1/2 hour airplane ride.  Hawaii also has the greatest number of species that are found nowhere else on earth; even more than the Galapagos Islands.  The Hawaiian Islands are an absolutely amazing example of evolution in action, but most of their native species are either threatened, endangered, or rare.  In fact, Hawaii has been called the "Endangered Species Capital of the World."

Ohia trees in Native Hawaiian Forest.
I had the opportunity last week to go to the island of Molokai and help a friend with his research on Molokai tree snails.  I wrote a blog post about the trip for Scientific American's Guest Blog, and I'll post the link here as soon as it becomes available.  I feel like my time in the forests on Molokai completely shifted my perspective.  We spent three days hiking and living in native plants, like Ohia trees and Ohelo bushes.  Coming back to Honolulu was a surreal experience.  What the heck was going on with the trees and plants? These species didn't belong here.  It reminded me of the experience of returning to my neighborhood after a huge wildfire had destroyed miles of forest and homes.  Everything seemed like it was in the wrong place.

Living in Hawaii, I am very lucky that I get to see animals and plants that may be extinct in the next 10-20 years.  These opportunities will only be there for so long.  I guess it is a little like making sure each visit with an elderly grandmother counts - I know that time is running out for these species, so I try to treasure what little is left.

Which made it especially galling to look up "Hawaiian Snail" on eBay and find two separate species of endangered tree snail for sale.  I have been trying to find a good gift for my friend David (who studies tree snails), and I thought it might be fun to find an antique book print of tree snail species.  Instead, I found these:


The top, green snail shell is from a snail from Papua New Guinea.  The bottom snail is an Oahu snail.  Both are endangered species, which makes them illegal to sell.

You can click here and here to see the actual listings (at least until the end of the auction, in two hours).

I contacted ebay's customer support four days ago (on Saturday, March 31st), but it doesn't look like they've done anything, since the shells are still for sale.  I also reached out to the greater twitter community and to people on facebook, to see if more people could make a bigger difference.  Some of these people contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Officer, who has since gotten back to them with this information:

Oahu Tree Snails (the entire genus Achatinella) were listed as endangered in 1981, pursuant to the U.S. law, referred to as the Endangered Species Act. As such it is prohibited (i.e. illegal) to sell or offer to sell them in interstate or foreign commerce. Offering to sell them over the internet, which is literally, the world-wide web, is automatically an offer in interstate and foreign commerce.

The State of Hawaii also considers the entire genus of Achatinella as both "Endangered" and as "Indigenous Wildlife" pursuant to State of Hawaii law [see Hawaii Administrative Rules, Title 13, Subtitle 5, Part 2, Chapter 124]. The State of Hawaii prohibits their sale and even mere possession. Please feel free to forward more information like below. We investigate and depending on circumstances, attempt to work with the Hawaii Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement (DOCARE) to investigate matters like this. 

He also writes that a special agent is now investigating this issue, which is great.

Ebay no longer allows the sale of ivory or endangered
species, but reporting sales of another endangered species
(a tree snail) has gotten no response (so far). 
I found the whole experience very frustrating, as far as eBay is concerned.  I have yet to find a way to call someone from eBay to report this, and it's obvious the report had no effect at eBay (did anyone even read it?).  Will they be able to do anything about this, at all?

I realize that in the grand scheme of tree snail conservation, this is probably small peanuts.  One or two snail shells for sale on eBay is a drop in the bucket compared to habitat loss and invasive species predation.  Here's the thing that really gets me: I'm a dolphin and whale biologist.  I know that if an endangered dolphin or whale head for sale as a "craft item," people would be rioting in the streets.

But, to many people, it's just a snail. I don't think that's fair.  These snails are amazing - their species deserves to exist just as much as a dolphin. We should afford them the same outrage when people exploit them.

Just as worthy as a dolphin (look at those cute little eye-stalks).


Update (4/8/2012): I wanted to add that I did originally contact the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW), who were one of the ones responsible originally for getting eBay to stop selling ivory.  They were really great about getting back to me quickly.  Here's an excerpt from the second email I got from them, after I let them know that I had been able to contact law enforcement:

Thanks so much for stepping up and doing something about this.   There are far more animal abuses going on then the animal welfare agencies can handle and we rely on people like you to keep an eye out, speak up, alert authorities and educate others.

So, if you see people breaking the law, tell someone! Also, big kudos to the IFAW for being so responsive.


Update (4/21/2012): I set up a search alert with ebay to let me know whenever either of the two species of snail above were listed.  There was another listing last week for a tree snail shell from Papua New Guinea, this time being sold by a seller in Sarasota, FL.


I called Wildlife Enforcement in Florida and they asked me to report this sale at their website.

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