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As animal rights activists around the world applaud China’s announcement this past weekend that it would officially ban all ivory products from being sold in the country, another disturbing trend – ivory illegally exported into China from Japan – has raised concerns about the continued demand for this rare product.
A report released in December, 2017 by wildlife conservation organization TRAFFIC revealed that Japan’s absence of any effective regulations against ivory has allowed ivory products to be routinely purchased by Chinese visitors and agents, most whom use the opportunity to illegally export the goods for later resale in China.
Between 2011 and 2016, the export of ivory out of Japan resulted in at least 2.42 tons of illegal ivory being seized by Chinese customs, while seized Japanese ivory commodities into China during that same time represented 95 percent of all illegal exports by weight, according to the report.
“If this situation continues, it will undermine the enforcement of China’s new ivory ban,” Zhou Fei, head of TRAFFIC’s China Office and the Wildlife Trade Programme of the WWF China, told the Global Times.
In China, an illegal ivory products retailer contacted by the Global Times via Chinese social media claimed Japan as the origin of his raw ivory. Despite the new ban prohibiting all commercial ivory processing and trade in China, which took effect Sunday, this retailer openly and brazenly advertised his ivory products on social media with seemingly little concern.
While urging Japan to follow suit to shut down its domestic ivory products market, animal welfare activists believe that only a combined effort from all nations, both developed and undeveloped, will effectively reduce elephant poaching, which claims the lives of at least 30,000 elephants every year.
TRAFFIC’s researchers conducted covert interviews with ivory vendors in antiques outlets and tourist areas in the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto between May and September of 2017.
Many vendors interviewed said that the Chinese are their primary customers and that they are often agents with the intention of procuring ivory products for clients back in the Chinese mainland, according to the report “Ivory Towers: An Assessment of Japan’s Ivory Trade and Domestic Market.”
In describing those Chinese buyers, the Japanese vendors said that they use cellphones to communicate with clients back in China before negotiating a price. Oftentimes the Chinese agents will simply buy up every ivory product in the store.
One Chinese college student surnamed Chen, who has lived in Japan for the past five years, told the Global Times that ivory products, including seals, chopsticks and necklaces, can easily be bought in any Japanese shop selling such products.
Zhou said that there is evidence that the Japanese market contributes to ivory smuggling to China, and the survey found that 73 percent of Japanese vendors interviewed encouraged illegal ivory exports by suggesting methods to hide smaller ivory items in one’s luggage.
One Japanese antiques dealer told TRAFFIC that ivory can be easily smuggled into the Chinese mainland via the Hong Kong border or Shanghai, where customs inspections and law enforcement are supposedly more lax.
Previous cases dealt with by Chinese authorities revealed that criminal syndicates operating between Japan and China are heavily involved in the illegal ivory trade.
The largest seizure of ivory was made in China in 2015, when Beijing Forest Police caught 16 suspects trafficking over 800 kilograms of raw ivory from Japan via Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the Beijing News reported.
Based on media reports of illegal ivory trafficking cases from Japan into China over the past five years, the Global Times found that most ivory products were smuggled via sea or postal parcels.
In one recent case, the Guangzhou Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau in South China’s Guangdong Province intercepted 5 kilograms of raw ivory in a postal package sent from Japan, Nanfang Daily reported on December 24.
“Japan’s domestic ivory market shrunk after the emperor’s appeal on demand reduction a decade ago, but the market turned active again in recent years due to a growing demand from China,” Zhou said.
According to Zhou, Japanese consumers prefer ivory seals, chopsticks and accessories for their kimono (traditional Japanese garment used for ceremonies). But Japan’s ivory market in recent years has also been selling an increasing number of ivory bracelets, necklaces and Buddha or Guan Yin pendants, which are popular in the Chinese market, not the Japanese domestic market.
According to a separate survey conducted by WWF and TRAFFIC in 2017, 19 percent of 2,000 respondents in China said that they “still plan to purchase ivory products” after the ban takes effect.
A simple search for ivory products on Yahoo Japan’s shopping page generated over 58,300 results Tuesday, with most being ivory seals or carved works featuring Buddhism symbols.
Those products were priced between 1,000 and 50,000 Japanese yen ($8 to 443). Meanwhile, over 5,000 pieces of ivory commodities were auctioned on Yahoo Japan’s popular auction page.
One Japanese owner of an ivory products shop on Yahoo Japan told the Global Times reporter (posing as a prospective customer) Tuesday that Chinese customers often buy products from him, but it has become difficult to mail them to China following the ban.
The owner suggested Chinese clients simply travel to his store, located in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, 120 kilometers away from Tokyo.
Yahoo Japan’s auction page continues to draw the ire of global animal activists, who believe the site abounds with unscrupulous traders of poached ivory and other illegal endangered wildlife products, Reuters reported in January 2017.
Ivory products are also available on other popular Japanese e-commerce platforms including amazon.co.jp. Chinese media revealed several cases in recent years involving ivory purchased on these Japanese e-commerce sites.
The Global Times found that, even after the new ban, illegal trade still exists between Japan and China, albeit slightly more covertly. Sellers on WeChat now use the keyword “xy” (the primary letters of Xiangya (“ivory”) in Chinese Pinyin, or the words Duanmao (“short hair”), distinguishing it from “long hair” for extinct mammoth ivory, which is legal.
A Chinese ivory products seller surnamed Chen in East China’s Fujian Province claimed that his ivory products were from Africa and Japan. He operates two WeChat accounts and two QQ accounts to conduct his illegal ivory trade, with one account used as a backup if the other is discovered by authorities.
Chen sells ivory Guan Yin (the Chinese goddess of mercy) pendants for 450 yuan each, and told the undercover Global Times reporter that his products can easily be sent to Beijing via express delivery, which is not inspected by postal authorities.
“It will be safe, as the authorities do not bother to check each delivery package, and I’ve done this many times,” Chen said.
According to Zhou, ivory products in China have long been viewed as exquisite status symbols, and ivory carvings dating back to ancient times were an integral part of traditional Chinese culture and arts.
“Ivory carvings included in the Intangible Culture Heritage Conservation in 2006 stimulated the demand of ivory in China,” Zhou explained.
Zhou said that the rampant illegal online ivory trade cannot be solved overnight following the ban, but Chinese authorities and wildlife conservation groups have made efforts to cooperate with social media and other online platforms on cracking down illegal trade.
In November of 2017, Chinese internet giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent along with eight other internet companies formed an unprecedented alliance to crack down on illegal online trading of any endangered wildlife products.
The alliance vowed to delete sales advertisements, close accounts and report the suspected accounts to the Forest Police for investigation, according to Zhou.
It’s all up to Japan
In the meantime, TRAFFIC is calling for the complete closure of Japan’s domestic ivory market.
“To crack down on elephant poaching requires global collaboration. Chinese tourists may continue to buy ivory products in Japan and other countries if those countries fail to shut down their ivory markets,” Zhou said.
Sadly, the ivory trade issue has become a kind of political game between developed and developing countries. Western countries have often criticized developing countries such as China for encouraging elephant poaching. However, TRAFFIC reports conducted in the US and UK found that illegal ivory trade thrives in those countries as well.
The US recently introduced new rules to ban ivory trade between different states, and the UK is expected to announce next month stricter measures to curtail domestic ivory trade. However, Japan is still home to one of the world’s largest domestic ivory markets, which may render all those efforts inadequate.
Lax law enforcement and gaping loopholes in Japanese regulations of its ivory trade continue to contribute to widespread illegal exports.
Concerns over Japan’s ivory market have led to a joint criticism from four African countries during a meeting of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which is also known as the Washington Convention in November 2017, the Japan Times reported.
To its credit, Japan’s Ministry of Environment launched a campaign in August of 2017 to promote the voluntary registration of privately-held ivory tusks.
But TRAFFIC’s report pointed out that, without mandatory registration and an effective and traceable marking system, the new measure is unlikely to address the problem of illegal ivory exports from Japan.