Japanese Ambassador to Zimbabwe Satoshi Tanaka holds an ivory tusk from the country's stockpile on a recent tour. Photo: OpenParly

Japan’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Satoshi Tanaka, was photographed holding a large elephant tusk from the African country’s ivory stockpile in Harare before Zimbabwe’s African Elephant Summit in Hwange National Park recently.

Japan maintains the world’s largest legal ivory market, making it an outlier among other nations with a history of consuming ivory, and particularly in Asia. Other jurisdictions in Asia have closed their domestic ivory markets, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, in addition to the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. 

One can only speculate as to why Ambassador Tanaka felt it was appropriate to hoist this massive tusk, a stark symbol of the thousands of elephants that are ruthlessly poached across Africa each year, in front of journalists’ cameras. Whatever the thinking may have been, the resulting image perfectly exemplifies how completely out of touch with reality Japan remains when it comes to protecting elephants from the trade in ivory. 

The stockpile tour was organized in advance of the African Elephant Summit the country hosted last week to build international support to sell its stockpile. Zimbabwe claims to have 130 metric tons of stockpiled elephant ivory and is apparently wooing potential buyers.

Ambassadors from the EU, the US, the UK and China were also on the tour; however, all of those jurisdictions have acted to close their domestic ivory markets to protect elephants. 

Before the summit, 50 environmental and conservation non-government organizations issued a statement condemning the idea of resurrecting the international ivory trade.

Representatives from select African elephant-range states, as well as China and Japan, were invited to attend the African Elephant Summit. It’s notable that not all African countries, or even all 37 African elephant-range states, were invited to a summit with the goal of finding an African “consensus” on ivory trade, and even more interesting that Japan and China were invited to such a summit.

Ultimately, only six countries attended and five signed the declaration committing to pursue the sale of ivory stockpiles: Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

The international trade in elephant ivory has been banned by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) since 1989, but twice in recent history countries have agreed to make an exception and allow the sale of ivory stocks. 

Japan was the only country permitted by CITES to purchase ivory in both of those sales. There is much evidence that the “one-off” sale in 2008 to Japan and China stimulated demand for ivory and increased poaching of elephants. 

Another “one-off” sale, like what Zimbabwe is pushing for, would negate global efforts to stop the poaching. As the last ivory market of significance, Japan is being targeted by countries like Zimbabwe that want to sell their stockpiles. Japan is currently the world’s largest legal ivory market, which is propped up by a massive stockpile of ivory sourced from Africa and thousands of manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. 

Though the Japanese government begs to differ, the reality is that Japan’s poorly regulated domestic ivory market is an international problem. Japan’s legal market undermines the efforts of other countries to take the issue of ivory trade seriously.

For example, ivory from Japan is frequently seized in China, which banned ivory trade within its borders in 2018. Since then, China has made at least 72 seizures of ivory sent from Japan. 

Despite evidence of illegal exports from Japan, the government refuses to close its market. Officials conveniently ignore reports of Japanese ivory seized abroad and often cite waning demand for ivory in the country and a large stockpile of old ivory as why their market is not problematic. The government of Japan continues to validate the legal trade in ivory and support the ivory industry. 

In November of this year, 184 countries will meet for the 19th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) where they will consider issues related to the ivory trade. At the previous CoP, countries voted to maintain the international ivory trade ban and reiterated a commitment to closing domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade.

Under CITES, Japan is obliged to report on measures it is taking to ensure its market does not contribute to the illegal trade or poaching, but its efforts continue to fall short.

Given that most of the world’s historic ivory markets have been closed, only Japan remains as a likely future buyer. As long as Japan’s domestic market remains open, and its officials pose for pictures during open-house tours of ivory stockpiles, Japan is sending a signal that it supports the trade in ivory. Countries like Zimbabwe hear that loud and clear. 

Amy Zets Croke is senior policy analyst for the Wildlife Campaign, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA-US).