In October, a new documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio premiered on Netflix. “The Ivory Game” is a dramatic study of the illegal trade in elephant tusks that includes conservationists battling poachers, investigative journalists following the money trail and black market merchants in China.
Experts say if the killing of African elephants continues apace, the species will be gone in a decade or so. What’s particularly discouraging is that, despite an intense and very expensive campaign by local authorities in various countries to stop poaching, the demand for ivory is such that policing becomes increasingly difficult because of the huge amount of money involved. The more poaching is suppressed, the more expensive the ivory becomes and thus worth the danger involved in obtaining it. A thousand African law enforcement personnel have been killed in the struggle. The only solution, as one conservationist points out while watching tons of confiscated ivory burn, is to inhibit demand by making the international trade of ivory completely illegal.
The end of the documentary shows that this goal seems to be in sight, with China agreeing last summer to eventually phase out its legal ivory trade, which has helped make black market ivory trade possible. And while Chinese authorities did not announce a timetable, the fact that they acknowledge the environmental stakes means something. Ivory’s commercial standing is based on its value as a decorative material, which means only well-off people buy the artwork made from it. While it is possible that Chinese officials are involved somehow in the ivory trade, China has no national interest in sustaining the trade and, with the rise of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly stated his opposition to almost anything having to do with conservation, China has been given an opportunity to take the world lead in such matters.
What’s conspicuously absent from “The Ivory Game” is Japan’s role in the issue. With China nominally withdrawing from the game, Japan remains one of the few countries in the world where ivory is traded legally. On a recent installment of TBS radio’s talk show “Session 22,” about the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in South Africa, a listener asked why Japan doesn’t completely close its ivory market. Reporter Tetsuji Ida, who has written extensively on the matter, answered plainly, “Because there is a market.” This market is worth about ¥2 billion a year, consisting mostly of ivory hanko (personal seals) and decorative items sold to Chinese tourists.
The Japanese government says it’s OK to import ivory as long as it comes “through legal channels,” meaning from those few countries — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe — that still export it. Supposedly, this ivory is taken from elephants that have died naturally and from stocks that existed before an international trade ban was enacted. Japan imported a large amount of ivory before it signed on to CITES in 1980, knowing it would become more difficult afterward, and since then it has worked to make ivory imports from South Africa “exceptions” to the limitations imposed by CITES. As “The Ivory Game” shows, using hidden cameras and the like, illegal trade in ivory is rampant in China and Vietnam, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of this makes its way to Japan. The government, however, insists there is no evidence that poached ivory is entering the country, but Ida says this assertion is based only on customs inspections. The government doesn’t address the possibility that smuggling could be taking place, which would be easy to determine: Just compare the amount of ivory sold to the amount being imported. “But they don’t do that,” Ida says.
So while international trade in ivory is banned, domestic trade isn’t, and many members of CITES are seeking such a ban. Japan opposes this and other actions. It invariably registers “reservations” whenever a species of sea animal is subjected to greater controls, even if the one at issue has no commercial value in Japan. One example is sea horses, which Japan doesn’t import at all. When the species’ status was increased to “endangered,” Japan put in a reservation.
Japan, as a matter of course — but not as a matter of record — rejects any limitations on the commercial exploitation of sea animals, since any movement in that direction is seen as a potential threat to its seafood industry. China finally bowed to pressure and has banned the trade in shark products for shark fin soup, a popular delicacy. Japan has not, seemingly because it has a lot of Chinese restaurants.
More central to the issue is Japan’s position on eel, which was a major topic when CITES members met this year. Many signatory EU countries want to change the status of eel to Appendix II, which indicates the species will soon be endangered if nothing is done. Under Appendix II, certification is required to import the listed species. Japan is against changing this status, and the decision has been postponed to the next meeting. Something similar happened with bluefin tuna at the CITES members’ meeting held in 2010.
Ida says that the Japanese public knows nothing about these discussions because the media only reports them as matters that concern related industries and bureaucrats. The press reports the impact on markets but not the impact on species. Thus there is no connection made between the sale of hanko and the extinction of the African elephant. The only time such issues come up in relation to Japan is when someone tries to bring in endangered wild animals for pet stores or zoos, activities prohibited by CITES.
As a treaty signed by countries with conflicting agendas, CITES itself is limited in its effectiveness. Activists take up the slack, with some calling for the boycott of online retailers such as Japan’s Rakuten, which sells ivory hanko, not to mention shark fin soup. The Japanese media doesn’t report on that, either.