Japan’s Inaction on Illegal Ivory Exports Jeopardizes Imminent Chinese Ban, Report Says

Monitoring network Traffic calls for Japanese government to act quickly to end smuggling

Japan’s failure to prevent illegal ivory exports could undermine China’s forthcoming ban on its domestic ivory trade, conservation groups have warned.

photo of ivoryPhoto by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, FlickrChina’s plans to end its domestic ivory trade at the end of the year. But a new report warns that Japan’s inaction on illegal ivory exports could threaten this effort. 

Inaction by Japan’s government has allowed the smuggling of large quantities of undocumented ivory overseas, mainly to China, according to a report released in Tokyo on Wednesday by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

The report, compiled with the support of the World Wildlife Fund, says 2.42 tons of ivory — including elephant tusks, antiques, and jewelry — were illegally exported from Japan between 2011 and 2016.

Online sales are a major contributor to the problem, the report says. Last year, Chinese authorities seized 1,639 pieces of worked ivory and carved tusks believed to have been bought in online auctions. Very few illegal consignments are seized in Japan.

According to Traffic, an average of 2,447 ivory items worth more than $400,000 were auctioned during a four-week period between May and June 2017 on a major e-commerce site.

The report says researchers found antique dealers were buying a large number of elephant tusks in Japan that were not registered, even though owners are required to show proof that the items were not bought after the international ban on the ivory trade came into effect in 1989.

“Japan’s domestic ivory market availability is targeted for procuring products from the antiques and tourist markets for illegal ivory exports, as well as through physical and online auctions,” the report says.

International pressure has resulted in some progress in Japan, however. In July, the e-commerce company Rakuten said it would ban the sale of ivory products, but Yahoo! Japan and other sites continue to sell the items.

Almost 95 percent of illegal ivory exports from Japan go to China, which is to end its domestic legal trade in ivory at the end of this year, amid concern about the steep decline in the African elephant population caused by poaching. Hong Kong, the world’s largest retail ivory market, plans to follow suit in 2021.

But Traffic’s Tomomi Kitade, who co-authored the report, warned that the flow of ivory from Japan could hamper Chinese efforts to stamp out its domestic trade. 

“Continuing to allow substantial illegal exports to go to China will undermine Chinese attempts to enforce the ban on its domestic ivory trade,” Kitade said. “Our findings show that the Japanese government has a responsibility to act quickly to end illegal exports.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) bans the international trade in ivory to protect endangered African elephants, and has called for the closure of domestic ivory markets in all member states.

Japan, however, says ivory products traded domestically were not acquired illegally. This year the government approved a proposal to tighten registration requirements and inspections for more than 8,000 ivory retailers and manufacturers in the country — a move described as inadequate by campaigners.

“Our findings show without doubt that Japan’s largely unregulated domestic ivory market is contributing to illegal trade,” Kitade said.

An estimated 20,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks, according to conservation groups. Last year, a record 40 tonnes of ivory were seized worldwide, triple the amount in 2007.

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