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Thirty Years Since the International Ivory Ban, Say Goodbye to Ivory Hanko

By Allan Thornton, President, Environmental Investigation Agency US

This opinion originally appeared in Japanese in Asahi Shimbun on January 8th, 2020

Around 20,000 elephants have been killed every year in Africa, for the past decade at least, to supply the global trade in ivory. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decided to end international ivory trade in 1989. This year marks thirty years since the ban entered into effect, on January 18, 1990. Still, why does the poaching continue?

Although the international trade was banned, many countries continued to allow domestic trade in ivory. Because of this, attempts to pass off illegally imported ivory, derived from poached elephants, as having been obtained in a legal way domestically have prevailed. Consequently, poaching problems have never gone away. Then CITES Parties adopted a resolution calling for countries with domestic ivory markets linked to poaching or illegal trade to urgently close them. Around this time, major consumer nations including the United States and China banned or undertook bans on domestic trade in ivory to protect elephants; subsequently, Japan has become the world’s largest domestic ivory market remaining today. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has analyzed the official import statistics and calculated that Japan has imported tusks from some 328,000 elephants since 1950, mainly to produce ivory hanko.

Judging from both past and current circumstances, Japan should urgently close its domestic ivory market. However, the Government of Japan and the hanko industry, responsible for consuming 80% of raw ivory for hanko production, have bent over backwards to defend the market.

Responding to such situations, critical movements have taken place at home and abroad. Domestically, online retailers including Rakuten, Mercari, and Yahoo! Japan have banned elephant ivory product sales. AEON and Ito-Yokado will ban ivory sales in March 2020.

Internationally, thirty-two African nations urged Japan to close its domestic ivory market at the CITES meeting last year. The New York Mayor and thirty-seven US congresspersons sent letters to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, respectively, requesting Japan ban domestic ivory sales as well. In those letters, they expressed grave concerns that legal domestic sales could cause American people visiting Japan during the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to misunderstand that they could bring ivory products bought in Japan back to the United States, when in fact they would face the seizure of those items by US customs.

Confronting realities – such as rapid popularization of electronic signatures and exemption of hanko notification in incorporation procedures in the near future – the hanko industry is striving to develop a new market targeting foreign visitors. Why instead don’t they gain an international reputation for Japan’s hanko by ending ivory sales? Japanese consumers have the opportunity to push the industry policy change by saying no to ivory, and choosing other materials. I would like to continue to act for the sake of Africa’s elephants, together with Japanese people.

Now, the hanko industry must consider the damaging impact of the continuing resistance to the CITES resolution urging bans on domestic ivory trade. Why doesn’t the industry try to achieve a positive international reputation of “Japanese hanko” by discarding ivory hanko? Japanese consumers can pressure the industry to change its policy by selecting alternative materials for hanko, and saying “no” to ivory. I’m grateful to work together with Japanese people to protect elephants.

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