Intelligence Brute: ACOG

Thirty Years After the Ivory Ban: Japan Still Threatens Africa’s Elephants

by Allan Thornton, President EIA

Thirty years ago, in response to the massive killings of some 70,000 elephants a year, the Parties to CITES up-listed all African elephant populations to Appendix I, banning almost all international trade. Being at the Conference of the Parties for that particular moment – when the ban was announced – was one of the most important and inspiring moments of my life as an environmental campaigner.

The CITES room was packed with more than 1,000 people from some 70 nations. As the vote was announced that CITES approved that nearly all international trade in ivory would be banned, the room went totally silent. The international ivory trade had existed for thousands of years of relentless ivory slaughter of this magnificent species. One person began to clap softly and then a few more. Then hundreds of people joined in and people were hugging each other, some crying in joy. It was the most important conservation decision by CITES in its entire history.

Before the ivory ban, Japan, alongside Hong Kong, was the world’s largest consumer of poached ivory from Africa, working closely with Hong Kong syndicates to acquire thousands of tons of tusks, mainly for ivory hanko signature seals. From 1950 to 1989, Japan imported the ivory from some 328,000 elephants. In the ten years before the CITES ban on international commercial trade in ivory, African elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million in 1979 to around 624,000 in 1989. Japan’s demand for the largest tusks to yield the most ivory hanko seals destroyed the mature males and females of many populations.

The CITES decision to protect African elephants proved to be the most effective conservation policy in the second half of the twentieth century for an endangered species. After the ban went into effect in January 1990, the price of ivory dropped, poaching subsided and some elephant populations began to recover.

However, instead of supporting efforts to protect Africa’s decimated elephants, Japan promptly led efforts to overturn the successful CITES ban on ivory trade, securing a CITES decision in 1997 to import ivory from southern African countries. In 2008, Japan secured a further legal ivory sale and China followed Japan’s lead and also demanded legal ivory imports. Poaching skyrocketed again and thousands of elephants were poached each year to provide fulfill consumer demand of ivory to Japan, China and elsewhere.

Although Japan promised rigorous controls over its domestic ivory trade in order to win the CITES decision to allow the two legal auctions of ivory, Japan failed to enact meaningful enforcement controls and mandated resources to prevent poached ivory from reaching the Japanese domestic market. Japan allowed hundreds of tons of ivory tusks to be legalized without requiring documentary proof of legal origin, thereby enabling large scale imports. The government of Japan has turned a blind eye to the appeals of African elephant nations to ban domestic ivory trade as the United States, China and other nations have done.

Elephants are a major development issue for many African nations due to the growth of wildlife tourism. The value of a wild elephant far exceeds the earnings of a poached elephant’s tusks. Japan has ignored the huge environmental and development value of African elephants and has triggered massive damage on elephants across much of Africa in its unstoppable demand for ivory. African people, and their iconic elephant populations, have suffered the consequences.

I can only hope that Japan will soon side with Africa’s elephants and ban its domestic trade in ivory. A slow clap will start, and it will spread around the world.