Japan continues to accelerate the decline of African elephants

Mar 7, 2022 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise, Keith Lindsay and Rosie Awori

Japan has the last remaining legal ivory market of any significance. Its closure will make a crucial difference in stemming the onslaught of elephant poaching in Africa.

Elephants continue to be illegally killed in Africa for their ivory to supply the demand for and trade in ivory products. Poaching remains a leading threat to both savanna and forest elephant populations, even in places where they have previously been secure. More than one third of the continent’s numbers have disappeared over the last fifteen years, largely due to a global demand for ivory products.  

Legal domestic markets around the world have created opportunities for the laundering of illegal ivory, which makes monitoring and enforcement extremely challenging. They also stimulate and perpetuate demand and undermine the international ivory trade ban as well as domestic ivory bans in other nations. Japan’s limited government regulation and the last major domestic ivory market is wide open for abuse

Japan’s massive ivory market

While most other countries such as China (including Hong Kong), the United States, the United Kingdom and those of the European Union have effectively closed their domestic ivory markets, Japan, always one of the world’s largest importers of ivory, steadfastly remains the outlier.

According to a document submitted by Senegal to the 74th Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which is held this week in Lyon, France, Japan has a stockpile of at least 244 tons of ivory. This accounts for 89% of the entire ivory stockpiles in Asia and 31% of the world’s stockpiles. Most of the ivory that is sold legally within the country, are carved items, especially carved name seals called ‘hanko’.

In a 2019 CITES Decision, the CITES Secretariat directed countries “that have not closed their domestic markets… to report to the Secretariat for consideration by the Standing Committee…on what measures they are taking to ensure that their domestic ivory markets are not contributing to poaching or illegal trade”.

Japan’s response to the Decision simply states, without any supporting evidence, that it “has been implementing stringent measures to ensure that its domestic ivory market is not contributing to poaching or illegal trade.”

Laundering illegal ivory in the guise of legal ivory

However, a new study from the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF) finds that such so-called stringent measures have never been implemented. One of the report’s main concerns with a legal market is that it provides a conduit to launder illegal ivory. It found that there has been a steady flow of ivory purchased legally from Japan’s huge stockpiles and illegally exported, mainly to China. The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) report to CITES CoP18 recorded 148 seizures of ivory illegally exported from Japan between 2011 and 2016, including 113 seizures of approximately 2.3 tons of ivory destined to China.  

Out of 113 seizures of illegally exported ivory, 106 (94%) were made by law enforcement authorities in China while only 7 seizures (6%) were made by Japan. Between 2018-2020, following the implementation of China’s market closure, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) documented 76 seizures of ivory (that had been legally purchased in Japan); 72 of these seizures were made in China, two in Vietnam, one in Taiwan and only one in Japan. 

“For years we have documented the Government of Japan’s failure to control its loophole-ridden ivory trade and prevent illegal trade and export,” says JTEF Executive Director Masayuki Sakamoto.  “Nothing has changed.”

Other studies indicate that Japan’s legal ivory market is appealing to international travellers. A study for WWF of Chinese travellers found that, among travellers to Japan, 19 percent planned to purchase ivory and an estimated 12 percent actually made an ivory purchase. A majority of those who purchased ivory exported it to China either by plane or through the mail.

An additional concern revealed by investigations of Japanese hanko retailers is that many are willing to sell an ivory product with the knowledge that it will be exported internationally despite most being aware that ivory export is illegal. The combination of buyers’ and sellers’ behaviour is international consumers are going to Japan with the intention of buying ivory, and retailers are prepared sell ivory to those customers knowing they intend to export the ivory illegally. This illegal trade is enabled by limitations of border control capacity, as suggested in the aforementioned ETIS report, and the existence of a significant legal market, where huge amounts of various ivory items are openly available. 

African nations call on Japan to close its ivory market

Members of the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), 32 African nations dedicated to protecting Africa’s elephants, have lobbied Japan to close its ivory market for years.  Representatives from the governments of Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger, and Sierra Leone, in letters to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in March 2021, wrote: “From our perspective, to protect our elephants from the trade in ivory it is vitally important that Tokyo’s ivory market be closed, leaving only limited exceptions.”

And now, with the worldwide closure of domestic ivory markets in sight, the CITES Secretariat is backtracking.  The Secretariat’s report to SC74 has recommended that the Standing Committee invite the Conference of the Parties (which will meet in November) to agree that Decisions taken in 2019 “have been fully implemented and can be deleted.”

AEC member Senegal has challenged the Secretariat’s recommendation in the document it submitted to the Standing Committee in Lyon. It states that the recommendations made by the Secretariat are “insufficient to ensure implementation” and – particularly with Japan in mind – that “Parties that have not closed their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked needs to be maintained and… renewed…”.  


In contrast to the complacent approach advocated by the CITES Secretariat, the Standing Committee this week should firmly press Japan to join all the other major nations and fully close its domestic ivory market. Japan’s ivory is sourced from other countries, mostly from Africa, and as long as ivory sales are legal, international consumers and traffickers will target Japan as a source. Removing this final outpost of blatant ivory consumption from the global landscape will have strong practical and symbolic impact for the struggle to save elephants from commerce-driven extinction.

This move is one of the most effective measures to ensuring that the decline in African elephant numbers is reversed. Until every domestic market is closed, the future of the African elephant continues to remain in grave danger.

Adam Cruise is an award-winning investigative environmental journalist, academic and author. He has a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental ethics.

Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia.

Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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