By Iris Ho, Humane Society International
African elephants are in serious trouble. Every year poachers kill as many as 30,000 elephants to supply the global demand for ivory, and the species in Africa are inching towards extinction in the next few decades unless serious action is taken now. The dreadful decline is already happening; between 2007 and 2014, poachers wiped out 30 percent of the total population of the savanna species. The forest species suffered an even worse fate, experiencing a 65 percent population decline, according to a study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Realizing the crucial role that global ivory markets play in this ongoing poaching crisis, the international community urged China to ban domestic ivory sales, and China stepped up to the plate. As part of a joint pronouncement between then-U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping, the two countries committed to combat wildlife trafficking and protect the African elephant. The U.S. now has a near-complete ivory ban, and China is poised to shut down its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017. The battle is all but won, right?
Not yet. With the closure of ivory markets in the U.S. and China, Japan’s sizeable ivory commerce is now in the international spotlight, with arguably the largest ivory market in the world. With so much attention on China over the years, few people realize that Japan has the highest number of ivory manufacturers, dealers and wholesalers of any country in the world. On World Elephant Day today, Saturday, Japan now holds the key to stopping this iconic species from plummeting towards eventual extinction because of this cruel endeavor.
The estimated annual ivory production by the carving industry, excluding whole tusks and semi-processed ivory, is a whopping $19 million. In the last decade, sellers offered $27 million worth of ivory products on Yahoo! Japan Shopping. Meanwhile, between 2012 and 2014 alone, at least 12 tons of whole tusks and cut pieces were sold on Yahoo! Japan’s Auctions site. Research released this month by TRAFFIC Japan, a trade monitoring group, saw a jump in the value of ivory for sale in Yahoo! Japan Auction in the last three years,among other concerns raised in the report. These online transactions are largely unregulated and unmonitored. Online sales are an incredibly easy conduit for illicit ivory obtained from poached elephants to enter a legal market and add even more urgency to the need to ban ivory sales entirely. Decades of attempts at regulating sales have failed to produce the promised results and elephant populations continue to plummet because of poaching.
Instead of helping to reduce domestic trade in illegal ivory, Japan’s ivory tusk registration system actually encourages fraudulent declarations that allow undocumented and possibly illegal tusks to be laundered into the marketplace. China also had an ivory registration system for decades before it finally decided to shun the blood ivory trade.
Anti-smuggling investigations show that ivory has been smuggled illegally from Japan to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere, and that Japanese ivory traders are willing to falsify documents to register tusks even when their origin was unknown. Meanwhile, the Environmental Investigation Agency found that officials charged with vetting the origin of these tusks coached applicants on how to falsify records to circumvent regulations. Another investigation revealed that Japanese ivory dealers have been selling ivory to Chinese buyers on a daily basis.
Despite flawed domestic ivory trade regulations and evidence of ivory smuggling out of Japan, the Japanese government stands firmly by its claim that its domestic trade does not contribute to ivory trafficking or elephant poaching and that Japan’s ivory trade control schemes are sufficient. It is a hollow claim that utterly ignores the fact that Japan is directly contributing to the trade that saw the decimation of one of earth’s most iconic creatures.
While the government of Japan has attempted to tighten legislation recently to strengthen ivory sale control, the bottom line is that continued trade in ivory is incompatible with the survival of the African elephant. Elephants are majestic animals who simply should not be killed so that their ivory can be turned into trinkets and vanity items.
Many African countries, including Japan’s trading partners and diplomatic allies, are affected by the scourge of poaching. Armed African militias who profit from the sale of illegal tusks carry out elephant massacres. During the past decade, more than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide while on duty trying to protect these animals. The African Elephant Coalition, consisting of 29 elephant range states across Africa, repeatedly calls for the closure of ivory markets worldwide. Most recently in August last year, during a visit to Nairobi by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe where he attended the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, close to two dozen Japanese, African and international conservation experts and groups called on him to discourage the selling and buying of ivory in Japan. Ironically, while in Nairobi in 2016, First Lady Akie Abe visited the renowned David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which cares for rescued elephants, including baby elephants whose herds fell to poaching.
Japan’s thriving ivory trade undermines the international community’s effort to combat wildlife trafficking and reduce demand for ivory. The survival of African elephants depends on ivory consuming countries ending the ivory trade. It’s now Japan’s turn to do its part and save the African elephant by outlawing ivory sales in Japan.