Our message to Japan: Africa’s elephants need your support


Paula Kahumbu, The Guardian

Date Published

See link for photos.


The global coalition for a total ban on the trade in ivory is taking shape. In Africa calls for the ban are led by the 29 nation African Elephant Coalition (AEC). In the consumer countries, both the US President Obama and China’s President Xi have made commitments to close the domestic markets which will have a huge impact on demand.

To be sure, progress towards building the coalition is uneven. Key African nations such as Zimbabwe and Namibia are opposed to the ban, and have even petitioned CITES for a relaxation of current restrictions. In Europe, while the French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal has signed a decree banning the trade, in the UK the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it is still “working” on its pledge to implement a total ban on ivory sales.

Conservation organisations used the occasion of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), held in Nairobi on 27 and 28 of August to call for Japan to throw its considerable weight behind the campaign to ban the ivory trade.

Their statement, published in English and Japanese and signed by representatives of 21 African, Japanese and international conservation groups, concluded as follows:

Japan is one of Africa’s most important development partners. They have made major contributions and commitments to support conservation. Now the conservation community call for 5 actions to be agreed at TICAD:

1. Japan to permanently close legal domestic markets of ivory, and aggressively close down online trading sites that deal in ivory, all to crush demand.

2. Japan to suspend ivory registration immediately, to prevent loopholes that allow fraudulent registration and laundering of illegal ivory.

3. Japan to support the Elephant Protection Initiative.

4. Japan to strengthen cooperation on elephant conservation initiatives and combating the trafficking of ivory to Japan through joint investigations and mutual legal assistance.

5. Japan’s Prime Minister and First Lady to jointly issue statements to discourage the selling and buying of ivory in Japan and to initiate an education and outreach campaign to Japanese citizens on the importance of saving elephants by stopping poaching and ending ivory trade.

Kenya is proud to be hosting the first TICAD conference in Africa and we look forward to positive outcomes of the discussions that the conservation community.

Japan’s support is important for three reasons. Firstly, Japan is a highly respected and influential development partner in Africa. If Japan speaks up for elephants, its voice will be heard and listened to, in ivory producer and consumer countries alike.

Secondly, Japan’s willingness to take the politically difficult decision to close down the domestic ivory trade in support of calls by AEC will provide further evidence of her commitment to ‘African ownership’ of its development.

The third reason is that banning the ivory trade is essential to fulfil Japan’s long-term commitment to fostering peace and stability on the African continent. While the spotlight has been on China, the world’s largest market for ivory, Japan’s contribution to fuelling the poaching and ivory trafficking epidemic in Africa has remained in the shadows.

In fact, the situation in Japan provides one of the clearest examples of why elephants can only be saved by banning all trade in ivory, not just the ‘illegal’ trade. Sales of ivory are legal in Japan but recent evidence has highlighted how it is impossible to distinguish legal and illegal ivory.

Speaking on the Kenyan TV programme ‘NTV Wild Talk’ Airi Yamawaki, co-founder of the Japanese-Kenyan NGO ‘Tears of the African Elephant’ described how an ivory tusk can be registered as ‘legal’ in Japan simply by asking a neighbour to sign a document vouching that is has been in your family for a long time. Registered tusks are not marked, so that same registration form can be used for multiple tusks, again and again. No registration at all is required for pieces of ivory weighing less than 1 kg.

Statistics from National Geographic show that as at 2014, Japan had registered 6,000 tusks, up from 500 in 2010. Yahoo Japan also closed sales worth $7 million in 2014, up from $2 million four years earlier. According to a recent report by Environmental Investigation Agency, there is no meaningful control of the illegal ivory trade in Japan even at the most basic level.

Airi Yamawaki described how in Japan, as in China, ignorance of consumers is the biggest problem that needs to be overcome. Ivory is used mainly to manufacture ‘Hankos’, personal seals that are required by law in order to conduct business transactions. These seals can be made of many materials, but ivory is supposed to bring luck, so people choose ivory without even thinking about it—and without any knowledge of where the ivory comes from.

Tears of the African Elephant has been working hard to change this situation by raising awareness among Japanese consumers through its project “No Ivory Generation” and reaching out to conservation organisation in Kenya. Airi told me:

It is important that the international community does not underestimate Japan’s role as an ivory consumer and the effect of legal ivory trade. With Kenya having hosted TICAD6, I hope that Kenya will use their friendship with Japan, to win their support on elephant conservation.

Now elephants have a new and influential ally in Akie Abe, wife of the Japanese Prime Minister. While the politicians (almost all of them men, of course) were talking on Sunday, the first ladies of Japan and 6 African countries braved a cold morning in Nairobi to visit the elephant orphanage run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), where they were received by Angela Sheldrick and the First Lady of Kenya Margaret Kenyatta.

It was an emotional visit. I have been to see the baby elephants many times, and I’ve fallen in love with and adopted four of the orphans, but this was a particularly moving experience.

The First Ladies stood and waited as the hungry babies ran towards them hungry for their milk. Each of the ladies got to bottle feed them with giant one litre bottles. The babies held their bottles in their clumsy trunks and you could see their eyes curiously tracking these new nannies. One couldn’t help feeling a pang of motherhood. Hands reached out and stroked the babies, feeling their furry heads.

Akie Abe was silently focusing on one particular elephant Kauro, a rather large 2 year old bull whose tiny tusks are only just showing. Kauro had been rescued after falling down a well by rangers on the Sera Conservancy in northern Kenya (click here to read the story and see the video of his rescue ). After the first few moments of being with him, tears began to flow down her cheeks. Akie said “I don’t know why I’m crying” and Angela responded, “it’s because you have connected”. We were all teary eyed.

I described to the participants how the presence of the orphans at the sanctuary was the result of ordinary people taking action to rescue elephants in distress. I spoke about the powerful bond that Kenyans have with elephants, which are even revered as gods in some tribes. Some people believe that we came from elephants and that is why we must aspire to be like them, empathetic and fiercely protective of one another. I also explained their keystone role in the ecology of Africa.

Following her visit, Mrs Abe posted the following comment on her Facebook page:

I was invited by First Lady Mrs Kenyatta, who is also doing a lot of conservation work, to visit the Sheldrick’s animal orphanage. Baby elephants who lost their mothers to poaching… They may have been traumatised by seeing their mother killed right in front of them, yet they come and so innocently play with us.

Feeding them milk, stroking them… I felt a kind of connection with these babies. And before I realized I was in tears. It almost felt like touching God…

More and more elephants are slaughtered for the sake of ivory. Elephants maintain our forests and protect our environments. We Japanese, who have a taste for ivory, must not turn our back on this issue as something happening far away…

These wise words—and the experience which inspired them—prove once again what I have long known: that elephants are their own best ambassadors.