03/04/2016 09:32 am ET

How Americans Get Duped Into Buying Endangered Animal Items

And what companies are doing to stop it.
Skins of Amur tigers and Amur leopards confiscated in Russia.
Barcroft via Getty Images
Skins of Amur tigers and Amur leopards confiscated in Russia.

You might be contributing to the decimation of endangered animal species without even realizing it. 

When illegal ivory, tiger pelts or rhino tusks make their way to markets and e-commerce sites, traffickers may try to conceal how the products were obtained. They'll use terms like "bone" or "walrus tusk" to describe ivory, duping retailers and customers alike. What's more, uninformed shoppers or tourists might not know that tortoiseshell and certain types of coral or wood are also part of this illicit trade network, which is estimated to be worth between $50 and $150 billion per year. 

Major companies across the e-commerce, retail and travel industries are now banding together to raise awareness and reduce the amount of illegal wildlife products Americans buy. 

Google, eBay, Etsy, JetBlue and Tiffany & Co are among the 16 firms committing to eliminating these products from their supply chains, the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance and the Obama administration announced Thursday.

“A lot of Americans are just not aware that they could be buying illegal products and adding to this global problem,” David J. Hayes, chair of the alliance and former chief operating officer at the Department of Interior, told The Huffington Post.

Each company will take action within its own sphere of commerce. Some will warn customers about the impacts of illegal wildlife products, while others will flag items on sale that potentially violate wildlife policies or provide educational videos on sustainability for travelers.

Illegal ivory and ivory products confiscated in China. 
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
Illegal ivory and ivory products confiscated in China. 

Several online retailers have already taken steps to block harmful items from their sites. eBay and the online bidding platform have banned illegal ivory sales. Etsy has banned all ivory and prohibited sellers to list goods made from threatened or endangered animal parts. 

"It's hard for the consumer to know what's legal and what's illegal, and it can be hard for the retailer to know," said Beth Allgood, U.S. campaigns director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a conservation nonprofit that has worked with eBay, Etsy and LiveAuctioneers to remove illegal ivory listings. "We can be partners to retailers who don't know all the regulations."

For JetBlue, the awareness campaign will primarily inform passengers traveling to and from the Caribbean and Latin America, said Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s head of sustainability. In videos to be shown on JetBlue’s flights, residents and small business owners from the region will speak about how sustainable tourism practices can support wildlife diversity.

“We want to stop this issue at its root cause,” Mendelsohn told HuffPost. “We’re going to cut out unwitting demand so there’s less profit in drawing out these natural resources, whether it’s for tech, necklaces or special meals” at local restaurants.

Leopard skins seized by Hong Kong customs officials.
Lam Yik Fei via Getty Images
Leopard skins seized by Hong Kong customs officials.

Other corporate partners that have pledged to work with the alliance include Ralph Lauren and Royal Caribbean Cruises. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums will exhibit seized illegal wildlife products in its parks to highlight the threats posed to various species. Discovery Communications will produce virtual reality content focusing on trafficking and conservation. 

The household brands committed to this new effort will work to establish best practices for smaller names in the travel, e-commerce and retail industries.

“These companies are accepting industry leadership and making sure smaller ones aren’t involved in wildlife trafficking,” Hayes said. “These are true industry-wide efforts.”

An illegal haul of rhino horn.
Stockbyte via Getty Images
An illegal haul of rhino horn.

Awareness of wildlife conservation has been growing for some time. President Barack Obama issued an executive order to implement a wildlife taskforce in 2013. The corporate alliance announced this week is a result of that effort.

Public interest in the issue spiked last year following the killing of Cecil the Lion. The backlash against the Minnesota dentist who shot down the lion in Zimbabwe heightened scrutiny of trophy killings and spurred action from the travel industry.

American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airlines announced last summer that they would ban transport from Africa of the “big five” game animals -- lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo.

A lion in an enclosure of the Lion Park, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
A lion in an enclosure of the Lion Park, in Johannesburg, South Africa.