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."