(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Though China has earned much of the blame for the massive slaughter of elephants across Africa over the past decade, Japan has been an equal partner in this continuing environmental crime—and a stubbornly determined one. When delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted in October to close all domestic ivory markets, Japan obstinately declared that it was not subject to the decision. Japan’s minister of the environment publicly denied that his country’s extensive ivory industry, largely devoted to the production of hanko—personal stamps, or seals, used in lieu of a written signature—trafficked in poached ivory.
But developments over the past few months suggest that this resistance may be weakening. In November, Hankoyo.com, one of the larger online retailers of ivory hanko, announced it would no longer sell ivory, and specifically cited the need to end poaching in Africa as the motive. Two other hanko retailers—Toyodo and Shoeido—have also announced an end to ivory sales.
Many others, including Yahoo Japan—described as “the world’s largest online dealer of elephant ivory,” have yet to follow. But the pressure to extend the movement against ivory appears to be growing both from the international community and at home in Japan. In the past, said Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, neither the government nor the press was much interested in providing information to the Japanese public about the ivory poaching crisis, which has caused the deaths of 100,000 African elephants over the past three years. Instead, official policy has been to support the nation’s 300 ivory manufacturers, 500 wholesalers, and 8,000 retailers.
The domestic press has, however, recently taken up the cause, “and the opportunity for Japanese people to know about conservation of elephants has increased,” said Sakamoto. That’s partly the result of recent investigations demonstrating that Japan has flagrantly violated the terms under which it agreed to regulate the domestic ivory trade.
CITES first allowed Japan a limited legal trade in 1999, a decade after a highly successful international ban on the ivory trade. Japan agreed that this trade would employ only tusks legally acquired before that 1989 ban, or imported from two subsequent CITES-approved sales. The Japan Wildlife Research Center, an independent body appointed by the government, was assigned to verify the legality of ivory tusks entering the domestic market and maintain a register of those tusks.
But investigations by JTEF and the London-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency demonstrated that these control measures are a sham. Posing as the hopeful seller of a tusk acquired in 2000, investigators phoned 37 Japanese ivory traders—and got advice from 30 of them about how to register the tusk using fraudulent paperwork. “The thing is, we must lie on these official documents,” said one dealer. The Japan Wildlife Research Center, charged with enforcing the rules, gave the same advice on eight separate occasions, in one case offering tips on how to resist a police investigation.
“The supposedly rigorous controls in Japan are nonexistent,” says Allan Thornton, EIA’s president, and that has allowed the legal market to become a cover for a much larger trade in tusks from recently killed elephants. In 2005, he said, Yahoo Japan sold just 3,800 ivory products on its auction site. By 2015, those sales had soared to 28,000 products, including 438 whole tusks.
“On a single day in August 2015,” according to EIA’s December 2015 report, the shopping sites of Yahoo Japan and competitor Rakuten Ichiba “each carried approximately 6,000 different ivory ads. The combined sale price for the ivory products on both sites totaled more than U.S. $5.1 million.” The report calculated that just from 2011 to 2014, some 5,500 tusks entered the Japanese trade without evidence of legal origin.
After EIA presented the results of its investigations to Tokyo Metropolitan Police, said Sakamoto, government investigators visited one ivory manufacturer and handed out a penalty that amounted to little more than advice on what the company needed to do to get its ivory stockpile in legal order. It was a weak response, and yet surprising, says Sakamato, because it was the first time anyone had bothered to implement the law in 20 years. The authorities seem to recognize for the first time “that they are in a position to be strictly monitored, and if they fail, they will face strong criticisms from the international community.”
To make a real difference, that criticism needs to get louder. So what can people outside Japan do to help? In September 16 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to the ambassador from Japan, noting that failure to enforce regulations on the ivory trade was directly contributing to the rapid disappearance of Africa’s elephants. They pointed out that participation in the trade also provides a funding source for “rebel militias and terrorist groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram.” And they called for Japan to end its domestic trade.
Take a look at the letter, and if your representatives in Congress are not among the signatories, find out why. It might also be worth contacting Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer (email email@example.com or phone 408-349-3300), to ask why her company, which owns 35 percent of Yahoo Japan, is profiting from the slaughter of elephants. Or try Yahoo’s chief financial officer, Ken Goldman, who sits on the board of Yahoo Japan.
Don’t be a troll. Just ask honestly: Do you want your kids to grow up in a world without elephants? Indeed, do any of us want to stand by idly as our infinite appetite for ivory knickknacks (and profits) drives the largest land mammal on Earth to extinction in the wild?