An undercover investigation by an environmental group has found loopholes and weaknesses that it says make Japan a weak link in efforts to curb a resurgence in the illicit trade in ivory.
The report released Thursday by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, based on surveys during 2015 of ivory traders based in Japan, found that most were open about their ability to evade controls.
It said much of the ivory sold through online retailers based in Japan is going to China.
“What has happened is that the system has actually enabled and facilitated illegal ivory to get registered and come into the legal marketplace in Japan,” said Allan Thornton, the EIA president. “The government of Japan has not met the legal obligations they agreed to in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.”
The Ministry of the Environment did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ivory is often used for ornate traditional seals and decorative items. Poachers have annually killed tens of thousands of elephants in recent years to meet rising demand for ivory, particularly in China. In September, the United States and China agreed to work toward nearly complete bans on the ivory trade.
The widespread slaughter of elephants has been spreading to areas in Africa that earlier were spared, as poaching syndicates expand their reach.
The EIA found that more than 12 tons of ivory products including whole elephant tusks were sold on the Yahoo! Japan Auctions site in 2012-2014. That site and others feature thousands of ads for ivory and ivory products.
The international trade in raw ivory was banned under a treaty in 1989 and Japan enacted its own law requiring proof that raw ivory tusks have been acquired legally in order for them to be registered and sold. But the EIA contends that widespread use of fake documents has enabled traders to “legalize” more than 1,000 tusks a year since 2011.
“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 says.
Apart from ivory purchased in two special auctions by African countries in 1999 and 2008, all legal ivory in Japan had to be from domestic stockpiles or imported before the 1989 CITES treaty. But individually owned tusks face no registration requirement, and the tusks are not marketed in any way to ensure that the documents are valid for the items being registered.
Newly affluent Chinese keen to build their personal collections are avidly buying up items such as ivory netsuke, or miniature sculptures, and seals being sold off by wealthy Japanese.
Undercover researchers found that 19 out of the 37 ivory dealers they approached offered to buy unregistered ivory or to help obtain fraudulent registrations, the EIA said.