Investigation Reveals Hanko Demand Drives Japan’s Illegal Ivory Trade

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Tokyo, Japan – Nearly 200 retailers in Japan are willing to sell ivory hanko knowing the sought-after name seals are destined for export which is illegal, a new investigation reveals. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), How Ivory Hanko Destroyed Africa’s Elephants and Drives Japan’s Illegal Ivory Trade, documents the key role of ivory hanko in driving Japan’s demand for elephant tusks and illegal ivory trade. Ivory hanko accounts for 80% of all ivory products consumed in the country.

EIA’s findings undercut claims by the Japanese government that it is increasing enforcement measures by enacting minor amendments to the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LCES) or by deploying four new government officials to respond to a burgeoning illegal ivory trade.

In 2018 investigators approached 303 ivory hanko sellers in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya to ask if they would sell ivory hanko to someone who declared their intent to export the ivory from Japan. Although ivory exports from Japan are illegal, 175 of the 303 sellers (58%) were willing to sell hanko knowing the ivory would be exported. Only 42% of the shops refused to sell ivory hanko under the proposed circumstances.

Danielle Grabiel, EIA Senior Campaigner, said today, “Japan’s Ivory hanko trade has been a major contributor to the destruction of Africa’s elephant populations and mature animals across much of Africa. The widespread sale of ivory hanko in Japan sustains demand for ivory, undercutting global efforts by African nations, the USA, China and others to reduce elephant slaughter.”

Recent changes to Japanese law failed to close the huge loophole that allows large numbers of undocumented tusks to be registered without proof of legality, thereby allowing illegal tusks to be legalized onto the domestic market. Many registered tusks are used to make ivory hanko, according to EIA.

Since 1970 more than 262,000 elephants have been killed to supply ivory to Japan, mostly for hanko. In the 1970s, the ivory industry promoted ivory hanko as a luxurious status symbol and good luck charm. Elephant ivory is not a traditional material for making hanko however.

Allan Thornton, President of EIA, said today, “If Japan continues promoting its ivory trade in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, some ten million visitors from China, across Asia, from the US will be able to purchase ivory hanko and other ivory products, thus undercutting global efforts to protect elephants. We are calling on Japan to close its ivory market at least six months before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.”

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Editor’s Notes:

  1. EIA investigations in 2015 documented large scale fraud in registration of ivory tusks by the Japan Wildlife Research Center. See Japan’s Illegal Ivory Trade and Fraudulent Registration of Ivory Tusks.
  2. In 2016, the EIA report The Dirty Secrets of Japan’s Illegal Ivory Trade exposed four Japanese ivory traders admitting to wide spread illegal ivory trade from China to Japan.
  3. In 2016, nations party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) unanimously agreed to a resolution (Res. Conf. 10.10 [Rev. CoP17]) calling on countries with domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade to urgently close their markets.
  4. Major retail companies in Japan, including Rakuten, AEON, Ito-Yokado, Mercari, Amazon Japan and Google Japan Shopping have already banned ivory sales. Yahoo Japan’s significant sales of elephant ivory persist unabated.