Legal ivory trade benefits smugglers while endangering elephants, new report finds

Nov 5, 2022 | CITES CoP19, News, Related articles

By Tracy Keeling – The Canary

An international ban on the trade in elephant ivory has been in place for decades. Nonetheless, the majestic giants continue to face an existential threat from poaching for the trade. Legal domestic markets are implicated in the problem, as they can provide cover for illegal trade in ivory.

A number of countries have moved to close domestic markets in recent years. However, Japan is a significant outlier. A recent report by an NGO, the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF), shows how the legal domestic trade there facilitates illegal activity.

JTEF has called for an upcoming global wildlife trade conference to hold Japan to account. It accused the country of “flagrant incompliance” with global efforts to end the domestic trade.

Legal ivory trade is a source for smugglers

JTEF released its report, titled Smugglers’ Source: Japan’s Legal Ivory Market, on 1 November. The NGO scrutinised court decisions in China to produce its findings. Specifically, it looked at the involvement of Japanese nationals and ivory dealers registered in Japan in the smuggling cases.

TEF identified the active involvement of Japanese nationals in 10 out of 45 cases between 2010 and 2019. This amounts to 23% of cases. Meanwhile, at least four of the cases involved ivory dealers registered with the Japanese government. One such dealer supplied 3.26 tonnes of smuggled ivory over the space of approximately a year and a half.

Based on its analysis of the cases, JTEF warned that illegal exports from the country are frequent and facilitated by Japanese nationals. This includes individuals who operate within the country’s legal ivory trade. JTEF said that this is putting “a considerable burden on law enforcement agencies of China” and undermining its enforcement efforts. It’s worth mentioning that China banned the legal domestic ivory trade at the end of 2017.

‘Flagrant incompliance’

The scale of illegal trade between Japan and China is vast, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The organisation has documented 5.4 metric tonnes of ivory illegally flowing from Japan to China since 2009. The EIA has long championed both international and domestic ivory bans and is a partner of JTEF.

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Speaking to the Canary, the EIA described Japan as “the world’s largest legal ivory market”. It said JTEF’s report:

clearly highlights the dangers posed by Japan’s legal domestic ivory market to elephant populations and the role it plays in undermining countries that have implemented ivory trade bans.

As JTEF highlighted, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meets for its 19th conference of the parties (CoP19) from 14 to 25 November. The parties – meaning countries – agreed a recommendation related to domestic ivory markets at a previous conference. The recommendation calls on countries with a legal ivory trade that is “contributing to poaching or illegal trade” to urgently close their domestic markets.

In light of the report’s findings, JTEF’s executive director Masayuki Sakamoto called on the upcoming CoP19 to:

hold Japan accountable for its flagrant incompliance with the CITES recommendation and urge it to close the domestic ivory market urgently.

International ivory trade in the spotlight

Both domestic ivory markets and the international ban “will again be in the spotlight” at the conference, the EIA said. Some southern African countries are pushing for the re-opening of a legal international trade in ivory at the two-week event in Panama.

Specifically, CITES will consider whether to approve a proposal to allow Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa to sell their stockpiled ivory. Zimbabwe has argued that doing so would raise funds that it could put towards the conservation of wildlife and communities grappling with human-wildlife conflict. The EIA says that due to Japan’s legal market, it’s an “obvious destination” for a significant amount of the ivory in question.

Moreover, experience shows that a renewed legal international trade could fuel crime, as happens with domestic markets. CITES allowed so-called ‘one-off’ international sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008. They led to an increase in poaching. The second sale in particular reportedly saw a 66% increase in the illegal trade and a 71% increase in smuggling. According to investigative journalist Adam Cruise, Africa’s elephant population dropped by a third in the following seven years.

Elephants threatened with extinction

All species of elephants are now variously threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Asian elephants are endangered, as are African savannah elephants. African forest elephants, meanwhile, are critically endangered.

The EIA said that CITES parties recognise that legal domestic markets stimulate demand for their ivory and create opportunities “for the laundering of illegal ivory under the guise of legality”. In light of JTEF’s report, the EIA urged:

Japan to follow the global example and close its domestic ivory market and calls on Parties to CITES to reject efforts to resume the international ivory trade.

With poaching for ivory continuing to be a primary threat to elephants, responsible for an estimated 11,000 killings on the African continent in 2018, many parties may well heed that call.

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