Japan’s inaction fuelling illegal ivory trade as demand rises, study finds


Justin McCurry, The Guardian

Date Published


December 9, 2015


Japan is fuelling the trade in illegal ivory and undermining international efforts to protect Africa’s elephants by failing to crack down on illegal registration practices, according to a report released today.

Although Japan signed a 1989 convention banning the global trade in ivory, traders are registering tusks that are of undetermined origin, including those that could have been imported illegally after the ban, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said on Thursday.

One-off sales of ivory stockpiled before 1989 are permitted and trade in old ivory is also allowed, but those concessions also enable smugglers and traders to cover the illegal trade in tusks, according to conservation groups.

The UK-based EIA said its undercover investigation, conducted this summer, had revealed widespread fraud in the tusk registration system in Japan, where more than 5,500 tusks have been registered as “legal” over the past four years, despite doubts about when they were procured.

“Japan is awash with ivory of dubious origin and not a shred of real evidence is required by law to ensure that ivory is of legal origin and acquisition,” the report, Japan’s Illegal Ivory Trade, said.

The EIA said that of 37 Japanese ivory traders approached by Japanese investigators posing as sellers of whole tusks, 30 offered to engage in illegal activities, including buying and processing unregistered tusks of unknown origin, and registering tusks using false information.

“Traders talked freely about how to evade or defraud the system and clearly had no reason to believe the government of Japan would ever look very carefully at their activities,” the report said.

Japan is obliged under the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) ban on the global ivory trade to require that all whole ivory tusks imported prior to that year be registered by the government. It also agreed to require proof of legal origin and acquisition to prevent illegal ivory from entering the domestic market, where demand is growing.

The EIA said its investigation had raised doubts about Tokyo’s commitment to ending the illegal trade in ivory. “Japan’s weak wildlife law does not require a shred of real evidence for tusk registration,” said Danielle Fest Grabiel, EIA’s senior wildlife policy analyst. “The system is wide open to abuse and laundering of illegal ivory into the legal market.”

Investigators working undercover on the agency’s behalf said they routinely encountered traders willing to break the law to register tusks. The report quoted traders as saying: “We have to lie on these statements,” and, “If you want a (registration) certificate, you can’t tell the truth.”

Several traders encouraged the investigators to record in documents that the ivory had been procured before the global trade ban was imposed 16 years ago. “If you write anything past 1990, you won’t be able to get the certificate,” a trader was quoted as saying.

The EIA said Japan’s conservation law for endangered species was not being properly enforced, meaning tusks could be registered as “legal” – that they were procured before the ban and stockpiled in the country of origin – based on a simple written declaration by the tusk’s owner, or even a relative or neighbour.

Although the law requires traders to provide documentation, such as a customs form, confirming a tusk’s origins, Japan’s environment ministry rarely asks for such evidence, thereby encouraging the submission of fraudulent declarations, the report said.

The revelations coincide with a rapid rise in ivory trade in Japan, amid a poaching epidemic in Africa, where more than 30,000 elephants are slaughtered every year for their tusks.

“Africa’s elephants are paying for Japan’s shocking failure to enact its legal commitments to enforce rigorous controls to prevent the illegal ivory trade,” said Allan Thornton, president of the EIA. “Only a ban on Japan’s domestic ivory trade and permanently ending registration of tusks can rectify the damage.”

Last year the EIA named the Japanese firm Rakuten as the world’s biggest online retailer of elephant ivory. About 80% of tusks in Japan are used to make hanko, personal seals that are commonly used to sign documents.

In China, however, the value of Illegal ivory has halved, according to a recent report by the Kenya-based organisation Save the Elephants, raising hopes that weaker demand could make poaching in Africa less profitable.

The EIA urged the Japanese government to join the US and impose an immediate ban on all domestic trade in ivory in response to appeals by African nations to protect their remaining elephants.

The EIA also appealed to Japanese internet-based retailers to ban all online ads or auctions from offering elephant ivory for sale.