Instruction given on how to trade in illegal ivory


Tokyo Shimbun

Date Published


In Geneva, Switzerland on the 11th, a US NGO involved in stopping elephant poaching “Environmental Investigation Agency” released the results of an investigation of the Japan Wildlife Research Centre (JWRC) (based in Tokyo) that serves as the certifying body for the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in which they criticize JWRC: “Centre officials are encouraging trade in illegal ivory.” We contacted the Wildlife Division of the Ministry of the Environment, and they commented: “We will communicate with the Centre and thoroughly investigate the actual relationship [between officials and illegal ivory trade]. If a problem is found, we will take firm action. 

 In Geneva on the 11th, the CITES Standing Committee meeting opened and will run until the 15th. The issue of ivory trade is included on the agenda. 

Last fall, an EIA investigator posed as an ivory owner who contacted the Centre “wanting to apply to register ivory.” The multiple conversations that took place with the Centre official(s) were recorded in their entirety. According to audio files of the recordings obtained from a representative [of EIA], despite the investigator emphasizing that “the ivory was in my possession since around 2000” during the approximately 21 minutes and 30 seconds of telephone exchanges, the Centre official repeatedly suggested that if one were to state that the ivory was obtained in the Showa era [prior to 1988], there would be no problem [registering the ivory].

Last month, EIA criticized the registration system as having become a dead letter in a report on 37 companies that deal in ivory, of which 11 expressed intent to illegally buy up unregistered ivory. This time, EIA has identified the problems in the registration process.

African elephants are at risk of extinction due to poaching, and international trade in their parts was banned at the CITES meeting in 1989. A consumer of ivory for such things as name seals, Japan was allowed one-off legal imports of ivory in 1999 and 2009. However, to help mitigate the distribution of ivory that was smuggled into Japan, the Japan Wildlife Research Centre conducts registration of ivory before it can be sold to certify it was obtained legally. 

Registration System in Need of Strict Enforcement

Each year about 20,000 elephants are poached and their tusks are trafficked. Putting a stop to this is a matter of international urgency, and one that was raised at the U.S.-China Summit last September. Amidst persisting suspicion that ivory continues to be smuggled into Japan—once the largest consumer of ivory in the world—strict enforcement is being demanded of a body involved [in the registration of ivory].

Behind the inappropriate correspondence that was identified this time, an insufficiency in laws and related systems can be seen. In the documents submitted when applying for registration of ivory, there are no strict rules set out by the law dictating how one must fill out the key section demonstrating how the ivory was obtained. It was reported [by EIA] that the certifying body (JWRC) officials have “guided” applicants.

Further, Masayuki Sakamoto of the Japan Elephant and Tiger Fund (based in Tokyo) said, “Under the management of the JWRC, ivory registration is processed for JPY3,200 per tusk.” The center registers over a thousand tusks each year, with indications that there is a financial motivation behind ensuring that this processing continues.

“Japan should implement a ban on the domestic trade in ivory,” said EIA President Allan Thornton. If Japan pushes for the need for continued trade, then it is essential to have a foolproof way of ensuring the legality of the ivory that no one would have doubts about. 

According to the JWRC site, the Centre was founded in 1978 as an organization with the purpose of providing scientific and policy research into humanity’s relationship with nature. In addition to conducting research activities, the Centre acts as a certifying body for the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Trade, Finance, and Industry in their implementation of the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species, and as such processes registration and certification of ivory products. Of the 18 officials, the only full-time employees are the three directors. 

Just write “I found it in the storeroom of the house”

The telephone conversation between the investigator and the JWRC official that occurred in September of 2015 was as follows:

Telephone Exchange Summary:

Investigator: I found the (the ivory I’d like to register) in the house of my father who passed away. My daughter, who was living with him said she thought she had first seen it around 15 years ago.

Official: So you are saying that you saw it for the first time 15 years ago and you have no knowledge of its history prior to that, so that means that it was obtained after the implementation of the regulations and you cannot apply [for registration]. Just to confirm… If, for example, you stated that “my father owned two tusks around 1985,” that would be your starting point.

Investigator: I have no documentation whatsoever from a public institution as proof.

Official: Because it was so long ago, it is conceivable that you don’t have (the documentation), and we have something that can serve in its absence. If one person can write that he or she saw them at your father’s place in the 80’s, the application will be complete. It would be ideal for it to be someone outside the family, but a family member would do. Even you yourself would do. I will guide you as to what you should write (on the form). Please take notes… (After filling in required information such as your name and address), for example, you could write “I saw two ivory tusks around 1985.” Stating that it was around 1985 is the most important thing, so be sure to write that. You can write things like “when I noticed it, it was displayed in the alcove,” or “I found it in the storeroom of the house.”