Four African countries’ controversial bid to export up to 54 tons of ivory to Japan will face a vote next week by members of the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Nairobi.
CITES banned international ivory trade for a decade from 1989 after about half of Africa’s 1.3 million elephants were wiped out by ivory poachers during the decade prior to the ban.
Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are eager to export ivory currently in government stockpiles which came from poaching seizures, culling operations and elephants that died naturally. The governments hope to raise money for wildlife conservation programs in desperate need of funds, representatives say.
In 1999, a one-time export of nearly 50 tons of ivory to Japan from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana was allowed after the countries had met CITES’s regulatory criteria.
Japan has been selected as the sole importing country because of its stringent management system for the domestic ivory trade, according to Shinya Mogami, an official of the Consumer Goods Industries Bureau of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which co-manages the trade with the Environment Agency.
Japan is also the world’s biggest market for ivory products, according to Hisako Kiyono of the Japan branch of the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce organization (TRAFFIC), an international nongovernmental group that tracks international trade in endangered species.
While the Japanese markets for ivory accessories and artistic carvings have virtually disappeared, ivory is still favored as a material for official name seals. Retail prices of such seals range between 10,000 yen and 80,000 yen, depending on the size and quality of the ivory, according to a report by the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society.
Last year’s ivory sale brought in about $5 million for the African countries but seemed to have little impact on the Japanese market.
“The import last year didn’t affect the industry much because there were ivory stockpiles from before the ban,” said Yukioshi Ishida, chairman of a nationwide federation of name seal wholesalers.
“But these days, nobody’s buying ivory name seals,” he said, noting that sales figures stand between 20 percent and 30 percent of what they were during Japan’s bubble boom of the late 1980s.
Five years ago, Japan implemented a law requiring ivory dealers here to register their businesses, ivory stockpiles and large-piece transactions with the Environment Agency, with mandatory record-keeping of all transactions involving ivory.
Upon recommendations from CITES, the government in 1999 extended the law to include registration of name seal retailers, which are also now required to keep records of all ivory product transactions.
The last CITES meeting authorized TRAFFIC to create international databases of elephant poaching incidents and illegal trade in elephant products discovered worldwide, partly to track the effects of reinstated trade. However, the databases are not set to be operational for another two years.
Whether the proposed trade should wait until the data results are clear will be a central point of next week’s meeting.
But the existence of pre-ban ivory and unregistered ivory products makes monitoring the trade unfeasible, claims lawyer Masayuki Sakamoto of JWCS. He fears that a potential rise in demand for ivory products in this country may result in increased poaching, as ivory accessories do not need to be registered under Japanese law, he said.
Elephant poaching dwindled during the international ban, but reports indicate an increase again in 1999. Reasons for the climb are unclear, according to a TRAFFIC report.
Increased poaching for ivory would also threaten the endangered Asian elephant, whose ivory is considered the best material for Japanese name seals. India will propose resuming the ivory trade ban at the CITES conference, which starts Monday and ends April 20.