Japanese watchdog ‘helps’ smugglers avoid ivory ban


Jonathan Leake and George Greenwood, the Sunday Times.

Date Published

Illicit ivory hacked from the carcasses of thousands of African elephants slaughtered by poachers is being laundered into legal circulation by a Japanese wildlife agency, a British environmental group alleges.

More than 5,000 tusks were registered as legally acquired on the Japanese government’s database from 2011-14 — far more than could have come from legitimate sources, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) claims. It found the tusks had been certified as legitimate by the Japan Wildlife Research Centre (JWRC), an external agency appointed by the Japanese government to check the provenance of tusks entering Japan.

When the EIA’s Japanese investigators approached the agency, posing as clients who wanted to sell illicitly acquired elephant tusks, they were allegedly given advice on how to register them as legal and how to prevent any police inquiries as to their origin.

“Our findings show the failures at the heart of Japan’s illegal ivory trade,” said Allan Thornton, president of the EIA, which has offices in London and America. “Japan must now enact a domestic ivory ban to help stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants.”

Populations of the African bush elephant, the world’s largest land animal, and its slightly smaller forest elephant cousin, are plummeting. There were about 26m of the animals before 1900; that was down to 1m by 1989. A global ban on the international ivory trade imposed that year only slowed the decline so that now just 470,000 African elephants remain. The situation is so bad that

United for Wildlife, the conservation charity set up by Princes William and Harry, has made them a priority species for protection. Prince William spoke out against the ivory trade last year on a trip to Japan and China. Last autumn the British
government put £5m into efforts to cut the trade.

Thornton said a key reason for the continuing decline was that governments in countries such as a Japan were not merely failing to enforce the 1989 ban but were actively helping traders to find ways around it.

The ban, under the international Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) left two loopholes, one allowing trade in tusks acquired before 1989 to continue, the other permitting ivory imported from two Cites-approved sales held in 1999 and 2008. It means that registering tusks or
ivory as having come from such sources makes them appear legitimate.

In the EIA investigation a Japanese woman posed as a private person trying to sell two tusks acquired in 2000. This was after the ban had been imposed, meaning that such tusks would have been illegal; but, said the EIA, she was given explicit instructions on how to register them as having entered the country before 1989.

The Sunday Times tried to contact the JWRC but no one was available. However, Wahito Yamada, deputy director of the global environment division at Tokyo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “Our government endeavours to implement the registration system appropriately and thoroughly.”

The Japanese embassy in London said it would look into the Allegations. A spokesman said: “The government of Japan has been strictly abiding by the ban on the commercial trade of ivory and ivory products ever since 1989.”

This week, however, the Japanese government will submit its latest report on its domestic ivory trade to a Cites meeting in Geneva. It shows the huge scale of Japan’s trade, with 8,219 registered ivory retailers, 584 wholesalers and 319 manufacturers of ivory objects. It also confirmed the number of whole tusks
registered as legitimate had risen from 12,384 in 2014 to 13,583 last year, despite the ban on new tusks entering the market.

The report, by Japan’s wildlife ministry, also warned a new unregulated market had sprung up: “With the spread of the internet, a new form of distribution has emerged for domestic trade in endangered species such as internet shopping malls and auctions.”

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