The Yomiuri Shimbun The ivory (see below) trade has shown signs of picking up recently in Japan. Last year, about 2,600 tusks were registered with the government at the time of sale or transfer, about 35 times the figure in 2000, according to an Environment Ministry survey.
But pressure from conservation groups to abolish domestic markets has been growing. At an international conference on the Washington Convention — formally the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — to be held in Switzerland later this month, the focus will be on the pros and cons of domestic ivory markets.
One male company employee in his 40s in Yamanashi Prefecture inherited a full ivory tusk from his grandfather, who had been in the jewelry business and passed away three years ago. The tusk, about one meter long and weighing about 15 kilograms, was kept in a cloth bag and stuffed under a sofa. “It is a keepsake from my grandfather, so there’s nothing I can do but hold onto it,” the man said.
Under the Law on Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which stipulates rules for the ivory trade, each and every full tusk is required to be registered with the government. More than 2,000 tons of tusks has been imported into Japan so far, but only 365 tons are known to the government. Most ivory remains off the books, to likely only be registered when relinquished by their owners.
According to the ministry, registration in Japan is increasing. Last year, the number of pieces registered reached 2,616, about 35 times the 75 in 2000. In the first half of 2019, registrations totaled 1,428, outpacing the figure from last year.
The ministry believes that from the time imports and exports of ivory were basically banned in 1989, ivory was sold by those who had inherited from the previous generation, which had initially purchased it as an asset.
“I want to register [the ivory] and sell it at a reasonable price,” said the man in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Growing criticism against Japan
However, conservation groups and other entities are strongly critical of Japan’s domestic ivory market, which they believe is a hotbed for illegal imports and exports. According to Traffic, a leading Britain-based environmental conservation organization, 2.4 tons of ivory were illegally exported from Japan between 2011 and 2016, with an estimated 95 percent of that going to China.
Ivory smuggling is seen as the catalyst in the poaching of African elephants. In July, the Environment Ministry made it obligatory that ivory be analyzed with radiation measuring devices to determine whether it was taken from an elephant during a period when ivory trade was permitted, with the result reported to the government at the time of registration.
The Japanese government intends to maintain the domestic ivory trade while taking such measures. However, Chiaki Nakamura, a specially appointed professor at Rakuno Gakuen University conducting research on wild elephants, said, “If the domestic market is closed and the economic value is lost, the ivory business will fold and poaching will decrease.”
Ban on national markets on agenda
The appropriateness of domestic markets for ivory will be on the main agenda at a meeting of signatory members of the Washington Convention to be held in Geneva from Saturday to Aug. 28.
Nine countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, have proposed a resolution calling for a total ban on domestic ivory trade, with Japan and the European Union in mind. Even if the resolution is adopted, it will be non-binding.
Poaching of African elephants — currently regarded as the symbol of animal protection efforts — has been rampant since around 1980, when there were nearly 1 million in the wild.
That number has plunged to about 400,000, according to an estimate compiled in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the Washington Convention, African elephants are classified as Appendix 1 for having the highest risk of extinction.
At the previous signatory member conference in 2016, a resolution calling for the closure of domestic markets that lead to illegal trade was adopted.
As countries such as Britain and China now ban domestic ivory trade, stern eyes have turned to Japan. But four southern African countries, including South Africa and Botswana, support domestic trade, as the number of elephants has recovered and the damage they cause to crops and fields has become more serious.
In those four countries, African elephants have been downgraded to Appendix 2, which states that the species is “not necessarily now threatened with extinction.”
“In southern African countries, tusks of elephants that have died natural deaths or for other reasons are sold, and profits used for efforts to protect elephants,” said Yoshio Kaneko, a former professor at Iwate Prefectural University who worked for the secretariat of the Washington Convention. “Such usage is also necessary for local communities.”
Tusks grow out of both sides of an elephant’s trunk. In Japan, the material is used for luxury hanko, or name seals, as well as for parts in musical instruments such as guitars and Japanese traditional koto zithers. The Washington Convention basically banned international trading from 1990. From 1981 to 1989, Japan imported a total of about 2,000 tons. About 90 tons were imported by special arrangement in 1999 and 2009. Domestic transactions are permitted in Japan, but the domestic market is said to have decreased to about 10 percent of the approximate ¥20 billion recorded in 1989.