Activists call on Japan to ban domestic ivory trade

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan should ban the domestic ivory trade to prevent illegally imported tusks from being passed off as legal and sold, an activist group said on Thursday, but the government said it had no plans to impose an outright ban.

Products from elephant ivory are displayed on the centre column of a shelf inside a carving and jewellery factory in Hong Kong, China October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

U.S.-based campaign group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said the volume of ivory being traded in Japan was on the rise and the system was riddled with loopholes that made it easy to trade in tusks of uncertain or illegal origin.

“We find this quite shocking because the system is set up to prevent illegal ivory from getting into the market,” EIA President Allan Thornton told a news conference.

The international trade in ivory was banned in 1990, and under Japanese rules ivory that was imported before the ban can be traded in the domestic market provided it is registered with a government-affiliated body.

Under-cover EIA researchers posing as sellers spoke to 37 Japanese ivory traders earlier this year and found that most of them were prepared to take illegal or questionable steps to agree deals, Thornton said.

An Environment Ministry official said that any ivory fraud was “regrettable” but that even if some tusks had been registered using fake documents, that did not necessarily mean they had been illegally imported.

“It would be a pity if false statements had been submitted, and we are determined to enforce the regulations rigorously. But we have no plan to scrap the current ivory registration system or close the legitimate (domestic) market,” the official said.

The EIA researchers found that some of the traders would buy unregistered ivory, while others asked the sellers to get their wares registered by submitting fake documents stating they had been imported before the international ban, Thornton said.

“The system has actually enabled and facilitated illegal ivory to get registered and come onto the marketplace in Japan,” he said.

“For Japan to close the trade here would be another huge signal internationally. When (U.S.) President (Barack) Obama said the U.S. would do it, it had a big impact ... Elephants really need everyone’s help.”

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Estelle Shirbon