Japan celebrates the end of ivory trade ban

"It happens three or four times a year," says Teruichi Kunoki, "and they're quite open about it. There's a Chinese who I know well who comes over from Hong Kong every year to do illegal business. Last year he visited us again, and we drank tea, and chatted, and then he said, `Any quantity available! How much do you want?' In the past, we imported too much ivory, and we knew perfectly well that many of the elephants were killed illegally - the tusks even had bullet holes in them. When I was a young man I felt differently. These days my heart isn't in it anymore."

This has been a big week for Mr Kunoki, the heir and owner of the Japan Ivory Hall, and most people in his position would be jubilant. On Thursday, after more than a year of discreet lobbying, delegates at the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) voted to end the total ban on ivory trading. The decision, reached by a majority of 74 to 21 (with 24 abstentions), will allow Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia to resume a limited trade, and only with Japan. For Japanese ivory dealers, however, the effect will be dramatic.

In 1999, when the ban is lifted, they will finally be able to obtain fresh stocks of their raw material after a gap of 10 years. As the proprietor of one of Japan's biggest ivory businesses, one would expect Mr Kunoki to welcome the decision. But he has provoked the disgust of his fellow traders by becoming one of the industry's most outspoken critics. He insists that even under the ban, large amounts of ivory have been smuggled into Japan. He says the government's system of regulation is inadequate. "I am quite sure, " he said, in a written statement to Cites last year, "that if the ivory trade were legalised under the current registration system, it would only encourage more smuggling."

On the face of it, there are strong arguments for a limited trade in ivory, from the African point of view at least. Since the total ban came into force in 1989, the situation of elephants in Africa has improved dramatically as populations have stabilised and poaching has decreased. At the same time, African governments have become increasingly frustrated by their inability to make use of large stocks of tusks, legitimately gathered during official culls.

Half the elephants in Africa live outside the game reserves and, despite culling, they are often a great nuisance to local people. African officials believe that the ban encourages poaching by driving up the 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. Thursday's decision was greeted with cheers and a jubilant chorus of the anthem "God Bless Africa". "This is a victory for Africa," said Julian Sturgeon of the Africa Resources Trust. "By allowing controlled, legal trade, this decision ensures local people will value elephants. Africa's elephants now have a brighter future."

The decision has been quietly but vigorously pursued by the Japanese, who for 20 years have been the world's biggest consumer of ivory. According to the official count, 2,827 tons of raw ivory was imported in the decade up to 1989, and used in everything from traditional musical instruments and theatrical puppets to mah-jong tiles, ear picks, chopsticks and stethoscopes. The biggest amount goes to make hanko, the personal seals still widely used instead of signatures. Since the Cites ban, craftsmen have continued to work with the substantial stocks of ivory imported prior to the ban.

The strongest argument in favour of the ban has always been that legitimising the trade would encourage poachers. Tokyo insists that its system of registering legally obtained ivory will prevent the legal imports being matched by illegal ones.

But according to Mr Kunoki, and conservation groups such as Traffic, the monitoring programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature, this is rubbish. "I strongly disagree with this claim, based on my knowledge of the registration system and of on-going ivory smuggling," he said. "The current registration system in Japan is a legal sieve."

Whole tusks, and their sale, must be registered with Japan's Environment Agency. The problem comes with partially worked ivory, for which the system of registration is entirely voluntary, and administered by traders themselves. It is impossible to tell the origin of cut ivory once it is in Japan.

"Once the ivory gets into Japan, it effectively becomes legal," said Mr Kunoki, in his shop full of exquisite ornaments, carved statues, and curved tusks. "Getting the documents is easy. Most smuggled ivory has a government seal, so this produces a funny situation. If I see ivory with the official seal I always assume that it must be smuggled."

Many of the smuggled ivory enters Japan via a third Asian country. A report by Traffic submitted in advance of the report states that "not one of the eight countries and territories surveyed had adequate regulations to deal with the possible infiltration of illicit ivory into its legal domestic market".

"I don't want a total ban," Mr Kunoki said. "These old craftsmen need to make a living while they are still alive. But the skills are dying out, and young people aren't interested in ivory, the ban has made it unfashionable. When they think of elephants, they think of them living and magnificent. Perhaps that's not a bad thing."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London