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A committee meeting at an international conference for animal conservation in Johannesburg voted unanimously Sunday to ban domestic trade in elephant ivory, which is used mostly for personal hanko stamps in Japan and for piano keys and fashion accessories, among other items, elsewhere.

However, an exceptional clause will allow Japan to continue using the product, as the nation’s representatives claimed the market here is rigorously controlled.

It is unusual for the U.N.’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which restricts international trade, to refer to bans for domestic trade.

While Japan appears to have escaped being forced to shut down its domestic ivory market, the move shows that pressure from the international community is growing amid criticism that the African elephant population is declining amid rampant poaching.

Legal ivory markets, such as those in Japan and China, are often accused of fueling the poaching of elephants.

“There was no demand for Japan to shut down its market,” said Junya Nakano, a Japanese representative attending the gathering in South Africa.

Nakano said illegal, unregistered whole tusks are removed from the market. Current rules require tusks to be kept intact and be registered with the government. However, tusks which have already been cut into pieces are not required to be registered.

In a closed working session, the United States proposed a total ban of domestic ivory trade. But because Japan and African countries opposed the plan, it merely recommended in the nonbinding resolution banning domestic ivory markets that are “contributing to poaching or illegal trade.”

The resolution is expected to be put to the vote at the CITES plenary session Tuesday at the earliest.

“Today saw a historic moment toward tackling the illegal ivory trade that is killing 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants each year,” said Heather Sohl, WWF-U.K.’s chief adviser on species.

“When there are legal markets for ivory it creates an opportunity for laundering of ivory into the country,” said Sue Lieberman, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s vice president for international policy.

As poaching surges in many African nations, elephant numbers continue to decline rapidly, with the population declining around 20 percent between 2006 and 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a recent report.

“There’s a crisis right now — ivory poaching and trafficking are really out of control and something has to be done to crack down on trafficking,” Lieberman said.

However, nongovernmental organizations have been criticizing Japan for its lax approach to regulating the flow of ivory, which means ivory products can be smuggled into and out of the country with relative ease.

In June, the U.S.-based international conservation group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that Japanese traders are selling tusks to Chinese buyers with full knowledge that the items will be illegally exported.

The agency showed a video that it secretly filmed during undercover investigations about the dealers. The video was uploaded on YouTube last Tuesday.

“EIA investigations and research over the past 18 months demonstrate that Japan’s ivory control system is plagued by loopholes and undercut by weak legislation to such an extent that no meaningful control exists at even the most basic level, ” Danielle Fest Grabiel, the EIA’s senior policy analyst, said in a report released Friday.

CITES banned international trade of ivory in 1989 after the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed African elephants on the red list of endangered species.

In the past few years, many countries have decided to close their markets to prevent illegal trading from taking place.

In July, the U.S. almost entirely banned trade in ivory and China is expected to follow suit. In September, the IUCN and Natural Resources adopted a resolution calling for a ban on domestic trading.

Despite the international momentum, Japan has been adamant in maintaining its domestic market.

Here, ivory is used for making personal seals that are often sold via online shopping malls such as Yahoo Auction and Rakuten.

The EIA claims that the number of ivory items sold on the Yahoo Japan Auction website was 28,408 in 2015, an eye-popping jump from 3,846 noted in 2005, with estimated total sales of over ¥700 million in 2015.

In March 2014, the EIA published a document titled “BLOOD e-COMMERCE: Rakuten’s Profits from the Slaughter of Elephants and Whales,” saying that the Rakuten shopping website carried more than 28,000 advertisements for elephant ivory.

Prior to the CITES meeting, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Environment Ministry announced measures to conduct stricter monitoring of illegal ivory trading across Japan, including conducting on-site inspections of traders.

Information from Kyodo, Reuters and AP added

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