By Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times
Japan has been criticised by conservationists who say it is encouraging the illegal killing of African elephants by refusing to join a full ban on the ivory trade and tolerating loopholes that allow the sale of poached tusks.
As with its support of whaling, Japan is increasingly isolated among the big economies in permitting the ivory trade, much of it in the form of name stamps, known as hanko, that are widely used in place of signatures.
After the criminalisation of the ivory trade in China and the United States, Britain banned the ivory business last year and the EU is gradually moving towards restricting it. Japan insists that the buying and selling of ivory objects within the country does nothing to hurt elephants in the wild, a claim rejected by environmental groups.
Masayuki Sakamoto, of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, said: “Most illegal ivory from poached elephants goes to China but China has made it totally illegal. Other countries become a place of transit and a cover for illegal ivory — this is happening in Japan.”
The cross-border trade in ivory was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 1990. On the face of it, Japan has complied with this rule. The complication is what is referred to as “pre-convention” ivory, from elephants killed before 1990. This can be sold in Japan, provided the owner obtains a certificate attesting to its date of origin. It has been claimed that the certificate is too easily obtained and can be easily falsified.
Carbon dating has been introduced to establish the date of death, but if a seller were to send a fragment of an old tusk to a lab, and use the certificate to legitimise a recently smuggled tusk, the authorities would not know. In 2018, 2,500 tusks — more than 30 tons of ivory — were registered.
In the official view, these were from elephants who died before 1990. Campaigners are pinning their hopes on an October meeting of the Cites standing committee, at which Japan will be asked to justify its tolerance of ivory sales.