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Economy

Japan a weak link in international ivory trade ban

Domestically available items are smuggled to China, where demand is strong

Officers at a police station in Gifu Prefecture on May 21 examine an elephant tusk that was confiscated after being traded illegally via a flea market app.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan is under mounting criticism that its domestic market for ivory products is creating a weak link in the international ban. Many ivory smugglers purchase products in Japan, where domestic trade is legal, and smuggle them to China, where demand is high.  

The Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, in August conducted a secret investigation of several shops in Tokyo that deal in ivory materials for making personal stamps. Its findings appear to support the critics.  

As part of the investigation, a JTEF board member visited a stamp material shop in the basement of a building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, where ivory stamp bases, awaiting carving, were lined up in glass display cases. When the member asked, without identifying himself, if he could take ivory stamps overseas, a shop attendant replied, without hesitation, "That's no problem."  

The attendant then said, "If you try to take them overseas, they may be confiscated at customs, but if officers don't notice them, you'll be fine. When I did it myself, they didn't find them because they were all small" and went on to explain about prices and available typefaces.

Japan used to be the world's largest ivory importer. It imported about 2,000 tons from 1981 to 1989, before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international trade to protect endangered African elephants. Many countries, including the U.S. and China, have shut down their domestic ivory markets, but Japan still allows transactions of products imported before the ban was introduced, as long as they change hands within the country.  

According to Tokyo police and environmental protection groups, ivory products, valued as something of a lucky charm especially by the wealthy in China, sell for three to four times the price levels in Japan. This has motivated a brisk trade, with people buying them in Japan and exporting them illegally to China.  

The amount of ivory smuggled from Japan to China and elsewhere totaled over 2.4 tons from 2011 to 2016, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.  

In one case, Chinese authorities exposed a smuggling operation, and the suspect reportedly admitted buying about 3 tons of ivory through online auctions in Japan.

The WWF survey in 2017 found that 70% of ivory vendors in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto said taking the products overseas is possible, apparently referring to smuggling.  

The Tokyo police in November 2017 arrested a Chinese sailor on suspicion of violating the customs law by attempting to export about 600 pieces of stamp materials made of ivory without a license from the Port of Tokyo. 

The trader who had sold the materials, altogether weighing about 7.5 kg, was also apprehended but was not indicted.

"If merchants say they could not have predicted that customers would smuggle products, it is difficult to hold them criminally accountable," said a senior MPD officer. 

At a session of the CITES Standing Committee in 2017, Japan came under heavy criticism for its insufficient handling of the illegal trade. 

The Japanese government has since tightened its regulations on ivory transactions.

In June, it enforced the revised Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, introducing a registration system for ivory product traders.  

The law also requires the businesses to register any tusk in its full form and create a list of processed products of a certain size.

Lawyer Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the JTEF, noted that there are many "loopholes" in the legal framework regulating the domestic ivory trade and a thorough management system is not yet in place.

"As long as there is an environment where people can readily buy ivory in Japan," Sakamoto said, "Smuggling will persist."

CITES, also known as the Washington Convention, is aimed at protecting plant and animal species at risk of extinction by restricting their international trade.

It took effect in 1975, and there are now 182 signatory states and regions. Japan joined in 1980. 

The treaty banned the international trade of African elephant ivory in 1990. However, elephant poaching for ivory started to increase after 2000, so the convention passed a resolution urging its members to shut down domestic markets involved in poaching and illegal trade of ivory, at a meeting in 2016.

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