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Environment

Japan's ivory trade fuels illegal exports to China, Africa says

Illicit shipments continue to drive elephant poaching

China customs officers display pieces of African ivory seized in a crackdown on a smuggling operation in 2018   © AP

TOKYO -- Japan is facing growing criticism over its domestic trade in ivory, which African nations and environmental groups say encourages illegal exports and poaching of African elephants.

Signatories to the Washington Convention, which regulates international trade in wild animals, gathered in Geneva in late August. There, nine African countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, submitted a resolution calling on Japan and others to ban domestic ivory transactions.

Ivory in Japan fetches high prices for use in jewelry, name seals and picks for the samisen, a traditional stringed instrument. International trade in ivory was prohibited in 1990, but ivory legally obtained before that can still be bought and sold within the country. Despite the ban on international trade, it is suspected that poached ivory has made its way into Japan.

At the meeting in Geneva, the African nations' resolution said that Japan's ivory market is clearly involved in illegal trading, and that elephants will continue to be killed as long it remains open.

The Japanese government pushed back, with an official saying Japan is not involved in smuggling or illegal trade.

Ultimately the resolution was not adopted because it exceeded the Washington Convention's scope of regulating international trade. However, a separate resolution calling on countries that allow domestic markets to strengthen regulation was unanimously approved.

That means Japan is being asked to come up with a policy to prevent illegal exports by the latter half of next year when a meeting of the Standing Committee of the treaty -- formally known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES -- is scheduled to convene.

African countries are still pushing for more. "We want all Japanese to be aware that the number of African elephants has been drastically decreased by poaching," a Kenyan official said at a development conference in Japan in late August. "Japan should stop the market immediately."

The threat posed by illegal hunting is serious. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is made up of both governments and civil society groups, African elephant numbers declined by 110,000 between 2006 and 2015, and currently stand at 420,000. That is just one-third of the population of about 1.34 million in 1979.

China, until recently the world's biggest ivory market, shut down domestic trade at the end of 2017. Singapore aims to do the same in 2021, and Israel and Australia have similar plans. That will leave only Japan and a few other countries, including Germany and Spain, permitting domestic markets.

Although international trade is prohibited, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.S. nonprofit group, cites at least 23 cases of ivory illegally exported from Japan and confiscated in China between January and June of this year. That suggests Japan's domestic market is a hotbed for illegal exports to China, where demand remains deeply rooted.

From July, Japan's Environment Ministry began requiring individuals and companies to attach documents scientifically proving when ivory was harvested to verify the legality of transactions. Before that transactions could be simply registered using the only testimony of a third person not party to the transaction and not the owner of the ivory. Critics said the system was ineffective.

The ministry's position is that so far there have been no major problems in connection with Japan's domestic market.

But African countries and environmental groups say poaching will not stop as long as legal domestic markets exist.

Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the nonprofit Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, which closely monitors the ivory trade, agrees. ''Other than closing the market, there is no fundamental solution."

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