Japan’s Tireless Ivory Market: A Trader’s Haven Free of Strict Controls

Mar 4, 2022 | Reports

By Masayuki Sakamoto, Executive Director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF)

Executive Summary

Africa’s elephants continue to be in crisis due to poaching for trading their ivory, and domestic markets for ivory have been closing worldwide to combat this crisis. The 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) adopted a decision, aimed at promoting the implementation of the recommendation on the closure of domestic ivory markets included in Resolution Conf.10.10 amended at CoP17, which states “the Parties that have not closed their domestic markets for commercial trade in raw and worked ivory are requested to report to the Secretariat for consideration by the Standing Committee to CITES at its 73rd and 74th meetings on what measures they are taking to ensure that their domestic ivory markets are not contributing to poaching or illegal trade.”

The Government of Japan (GoJ) submitted reports under the CITES Decision and insisted that “Japan has been implementing stringent measures to ensure that its domestic ivory market is not contributing to poaching or illegal trade”. Most importantly, Japan demonstrates a new business registration requiring ivory dealers to fulfill all requirements for registration and renew their registration every five years; a 100%-registration-mandate on whole tusks when they renew or initially receive their business registrations; maintenance of inventory data including transaction records and traceability information records for cut pieces; and, increased scrutiny of the registration of whole tusks by requiring the result of radiocarbon dating. However, GoJ’s claims of stringent market controls are flawed and unjustified.

Firstly, according to the GoJ’s report, raw and worked ivory dealers must be registered. In this case, they must fulfill all requirements for registration, which requires renewal every five years. But, our analysis of the GoJ’s examination of eligibility of the business registration renewal indicates that businesses are being registered via a token examination with a lack of scrutiny by the competent authorities. Specifically, the reality of the examination of applications for business registration is that the competent authority has left it solely to the authorized private organization, even for the applications by kingpin dealers with track records of illegal trade engagement. Thus, it is obvious that the examination of business registration and renewal is in name only, and it has not exerted any effect on excluding problematic dealers.

Secondly, GoJ insists ivory dealers must register all (whole) tusks in their possession when they renew or initially receive their business registrations. This approach is a countermeasure to the problem of unregulated unregistered whole tusks owned by the businesses; the Japanese domestic law requires whole tusks to be registered prior to transactions, however, exempts them from being registered as far as the owner does not intend to transfer them (even the case of tusks stocked by dealers for being consumed as raw material). Thus, it should be questioned whether the 100%-registration-mandate on whole tusks realized the goal of regulating the stockpile of registered dealers through the whole tusk registration or not. Our analysis indicates that registered dealers successfully evaded this requirement by cutting their whole tusks into pieces and then processing them into hanko beforehand. The details are as follows.

Cutting of registered whole tusks surged in 2016, and maintained that scale until November 2019. In 2018 (calendar year), it hit a record high of more than 19.4 tons for the calendar year, surpassing the highest weights in 1999, when the CITES one-off sold tusks were imported from the southern African countries, and in the following year of 2000; It should be noted that a large part of these “registered” tusks is considered to be actually unregistered tusks posing as registered. Cutting of the other unregistered whole tusks were also huge within that period (after 2016); our analysis estimates that 14.4 tons of those tusks in total were cut between April 2016 and March 2017, which account for 47% of the all whole tusks cut in the same period (an estimate of 30.8 tons).

Subsequently, cutting of registered whole tusks plummeted when the deadline for business registration renewal for the longstanding main players (November 2019) passed and they had to demonstrate that every single whole tusk owned had been registered. In 2020, the amount of cut tusks dipped.

This series of phenomena suggest that since 2016, when the main players of the ivory market predicted a tightening of the regulation on whole tusk trade in the near future, the main players of the market took countermeasures to evade any future regulation by using the legal loophole which mandates only whole tusks to be registered. In other words, they cut the unregistered whole tusks in their possession beforehand, including ones posing as registered by using the registration cards, indicating specific numbers, given to other tusks which have been already consumed, and other unregistered ones in possession, so that these whole tusks were changed into cut pieces and then blank hanko. In conclusion, the 100%-registration-mandate for whole tusks not only did not achieve a positive outcome, but also put enormous amount of ivory pieces and products with unknown origin and acquisition on the market.

Thirdly, according to the GoJ’s report, ivory dealers must prepare and keep inventory data including transaction records and traceability information records for cut pieces. Our analysis of that system found that the inventory data including transaction records and traceability information records for cut pieces recorded in each registered dealer’s ledger have not been used for tracing ivory sales transactions from the beginning (1995), and it is unlikely that such ledger-recording system will be contributing to securing the traceability after all this time.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental problem in terms of securing traceability of ivory cut pieces and products. Ensuring traceability means that each identified item, the legality of which has been verified, can be traced in order to prevent illegal items from entering into the legal trade. However, all ivory items except for whole tusks, or any type of ivory cut pieces and products (without remaining whole shape) are exempted from the mandate on registration, meaning no official verification of legal origin and acquisition is in place. Securing the traceability of ivory cut pieces and ivory products is, in both institution and practice, completely impossible at present.

Fourthly, the GoJ claims that tightening the examination of the whole tusk registration application process by requiring the results of carbon-dating will enable GoJ to scrutinize more closely whether or not a tusk was imported to/obtained in Japan before the CITES trade ban.

However, our analysis on the effectiveness of this new requirement found that carbon-dating is not a meaningful tool in general as it judges when the elephant possessing the tusk concerned died, rather than judging when the tusk was acquired by the applicant for registration. Moreover, the implementation endorsed by GoJ, which leaves sampling for testing to the registration applicants could raise the risk of laundering. However, the most serious problem is that the tightening of the examination on whole tusk registration by using carbon-dating was intentionally delayed by GoJ, and tusk registration promoted, so that a vast amount of tusks with unknown origin and acquisition were salvaged, legalized and then released into the market before the measure was put in place. As the result, up to 182 tons of whole tusks registered for legal trade were stockpiled without engagement in the carbon-dating as of the time of the end of September 2019. GoJ reported that the recent ivory stockpile includes about 66 tons of cut pieces, 968,000 pieces of hanko, 3.18 million accessories and their parts, etc. besides slightly less than 17,000 whole tusks with about 178 tons in weight as of the end of December 2020. Japan’s stockpile of 244 tons, including 178 tons of the registered whole tusks and 66 tons of the cut pieces reported by the registered dealers, account for 89% of the whole ivory stockpile in Asia (275.3 tons) and 31% of the world’s stockpile (796 tons), at least as reported to the CITES Secretariat by 28 February 2021.

In conclusion, GoJ has consistently failed to regulate its domestic ivory market effectively, so that a legal market open to any ivory derived from tusks with unknown origin and acquisition has been established. Japan’s stockpile is vast and the market remains tireless. Japan’s legal market is perfect as a cover for illegally imported ivory and a supply source for illegal export. The only path Japan can take to truly eliminate the abundant loopholes is to close its legal domestic market urgently.

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