Opinion: Japan must finally end the sale and trade of elephant ivory


James A. Baker III and Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Washington Post

Date Published
As the world watches the Tokyo Olympics, our thoughts turn to the international peace and cooperation that the Games have come to symbolize. Each of us, in the administrations we served, wedded these traditional concerns of state to the conservation of nature — and of wildlife species in particular. The growth of wildlife trafficking by sophisticated criminal syndicates has heightened our conviction that the world must speak with one voice.

With that in mind, we believe Tokyo has now a singular opportunity to finally eliminate the sale and trade of elephant ivory in Japan while improving its reputation as a global leader and financial capital.

Market demand for ivory products is the main driver for elephant poaching. Now that the United States, Britain, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have closed their domestic markets for elephant ivory, Japan has become the world’s largest remaining legal domestic ivory market.

Significant loopholes in Japan’s federal regulatory system continue to allow illegal ivory to enter the country. For example, reliable proof of legal origin and acquisition has never been a requirement, even though it is an obligation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Likewise, cut pieces of tusks used to make small items of worked ivory are exempt from Japanese registration requirements, making it impossible to identify and track individual pieces, because marking them is not required.

Substantial evidence indicates that these loopholes, combined with weak monitoring and enforcement, have made Japan a key destination for and source of transnational ivory trafficking. As a result, other countries’ bans on domestic ivory trade are undermined — particularly valiant efforts by African countries to protect elephants in their territories.

Between January 2018 and December 2020, at least 76 seizures of ivory routed through Japan were made in other countries, including 72 occurring in China. A recent study of Chinese travelers to Japan found that 19 percent planned to purchase ivory and an estimated 12 percent actually did make an ivory purchase, with the majority bringing that ivory home to China by plane or through the mail, which constitutes smuggling under Chinese law.

The preference of Japanese dealers for the hard ivory of forest elephant tusks is particularly worrisome. Africa’s forest elephants — a critically endangered species native to the humid forests of West Africa — have been devastated by trade. Almost 2 of every 3 African forest elephants were eliminated between 2002 and 2011 according to a census led by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

This is a matter of personal interest to us both. James Baker carried on a decades-long commitment to conservation by Republican administrations as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Responding to rampant elephant poaching, the Bush administration joined the diplomatic and conservation communities in 1989 to call for a total ban on ivory trade. The United States paved the way for this historic agreement through a unilateral ban on ivory imports, as well as its strong support for including the species on Appendix I of CITES.

Hillary Clinton has vivid memories of seeing African elephants in the wild during her travels with President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, only a few years later. As secretary of state, she assisted President Barack Obama on the issuance of a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking and the establishment of the U.S. Task Force and Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. Out of government, she launched a partnership to save elephants through the Clinton Global Initiative.

As Tokyo vies to attract foreign investment and position itself as a regional financial hub, the city’s leaders must take seriously the risks that the domestic ivory trade creates for these firms and banks. The Financial Task Force of the Royal Foundation, led by Britain’s Prince William, has received pledges from leading global financial institutions to uncover the laundering of profits derived from the illegal wildlife trade. They are seeking partnership from governments to impede these activities, which in many cases are used to finance drug trafficking, terrorism, and other domestic and international transnational crimes and security threats.

We applaud Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, for establishing an Advisory Committee on the Regulation of Ivory Trade in January 2020. That was an important first step. With international focus on the Olympics, this is a moment when decisive action can have a significant and positive impact on the conservation and protection of elephants as well as on national and international security. Japan must act now to preserve its reputation as a global leader.