In February, Japanese bureaucrats secretly met at the Mokuti Lodge in Namibia's Etosha National Park with officials from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi, who collectively make up the South Africa Centre for the Ivory Trade (Sacit).
Delegates at the meeting, who included representatives of environmental NGOs and the British Department of the Environment, expect to reach a final decision in the next three months. But Japanese officials are quietly confident that they will lend their support to a lifting of the ivory ban, and the issue is likely to be raised at the next Cites convention in Zimbabwe in 1997.
Japan is one of the biggest ivory markets in the world, and almost 4,000 businesses rely on elephant tusks for the manufacture of jewellery, traditional musical instruments and personal seals, which are widely used in place of signatures. Since the ban, craftsmen have relied on stocks but only 160 tons remain and they will run out in five or six years.
At the same time, African countries are becoming increasingly frustrated by the ban which prevents them from selling off large stocks of tusks, legitimately gathered during official culls.
Half of elephants in Africa live outside the game reserves and, despite culling, they are often a great nuisance to farmers and inhabitants. African officials believe that the ban encourages poaching by driving up the market price of ivory, and fostering an atmosphere in which elephants are regarded as a menace rather than a valuable resource. A controlled trade, they argue, would also generate much-needed funds for conservation projects.
"When the ban first came in, there was a decline in poaching, but all the indications are that the scale of the illegal trade is increasing," says Dr Malan Lindeque, Namibia's deputy director of resource management, who set up the February meeting. "People have little reason to tolerate elephants - they are shot, ivory is exported, and there is no benefit to conservation or to society. Our intention is to make elephants as valuable as possible."
"Our principle is that a decision should be based upon scientific facts," says an official of the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry. "The population of elephants in south Africa is very stable, and the south African nations should be allowed to reopen the trade for the sustainable use of ivory products. In Japan, the ivory industry is very traditional, and we regard it as an important part of Japanese culture."
Tokyo's Environment Agency is wary of raising the issue for fear of reinforcing Japan's reputation as a environmental violator. Japan uses the same arguments in support of its call for a resumption of commercial whaling, an issue which has generated international opprobrium. "There's not enough infrastructure in Africa to control an elephant industry," says David Butcher, the chief executive of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "It's the most likely thing that would lead to elephant extinction. Anyone who said anything to the contrary is crazy."
Environmental groups also claim that controls in Japan are inadequate to prevent trade in illegal ivory and depend too much on the goodwill of the businesses involved.