New study casts light on changing wildlife consumption patterns in Japan
Monday, April 25, 2016 at 7:30
TRAFFIC in In Asia, Mammals - elephants, Mammals - rhinos, Report launch

Tokyo, Japan, 25 April 2016
—A TRAFFIC study launched today provides powerful insights into how Japan changed from being the world’s largest market for rhino horn and elephant ivory during the country’s economic boom in the 1970s and 1980s, to a point where only a small fraction of the domestic market exists today.

The report, Setting Suns: the Historical Decline of Ivory and Rhino Horn Markets in Japan, documents in detail the changes that led to the marked decline in both markets.

The study’s authors analysed data from a wide range of sources including Japan’s database of National Diet records, newspaper archives, information from the Japanese Government, domestic industry associations and trade data. They augmented this through a series of expert interviews with industry insiders active during the period when Japan was the world’s major horn and ivory market, and a consumer attitudes survey carried out in 2014.

Crucially, the study provides powerful evidence for how consumer attitudes towards the purchase of such products changed, giving renewed hope and impetus for current efforts under way in Asia to achieve consumer behaviour change and reduce the demand that is the main driver of the current rhino and elephant poaching crisis in Africa and parts of Asia.

History teaches us many lessons for dealing with the present and this study, in particular on ivory, tells us that consumer behaviour can be changed to reduce demand”, said Yannick Kuehl, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in East Asia.

At its height, Japan imported nearly 1.8 tonnes of rhino horn in the peak year of 1973 and continued purchasing large volumes prior to 1980, while around 950 tonnes of raw elephant ivory were imported during the peak years of 1983 and 1984.

The popularity of the two commodities declined among consumers for different reasons although a critical factor for both was the introduction of trade bans through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1980 and 1989, for rhinos and elephants respectively.

Rhino horn was historically part of the Japanese traditional medicine system and it was listed in the national pharmacopoeia between 1962 and 1980, when large quantities were imported. Many household medicines used horn during this time, for treating a variety of ailments including colds, fevers and measles in children, as a child sedative and as a cardiotonic for adults. Today, only a handful of manufacturers are left, using a total of less than one kilogramme of long-stockpiled rhino horn annually.

While the use of, and demand for, rhino horn in Japan has declined to low levels, the report underlines that the management of domestic stocks and effective border control remains necessary, especially to prevent any illegal re-export to countries with high demand.

Following the 1980 CITES import ban, the medicine industry immediately adopted a substitute, Saiga Antelope horn (the then abundant wild populations of the antelope later became Critically Endangered owing to multiple conservation threats), which was believed to have a similar medicinal effect and was seen as compromising neither the perceived efficacy of the medicine nor the existing customer demand. The use of rhino horn was therefore largely abandoned.

Other influences on the rhino horn market decline included a modernization of the medical system, changes in the distribution and sales pattern of medicines, and a break in tradition through changes in the family structure in Japan, according to the study.

In contrast, the popularity of elephant ivory, mainly sold as a luxury and status symbol, slumped when Japan fell into recession in the early 1990s. Ivory hanko—personal signature seals—and ivory jewellery were the main uses in the 1970s and the 1980s and whole, polished tusks were popularly sold as home decoration and investment.

The 1989 CITES ivory ban had signalled the beginning of the end for Japan’s rampant domestic ivory market, with the government under intense international pressure to implement the Convention after the country had been widely condemned in 1984, at the first CITES regional seminar for countries in Asia and Oceania, for its failure to do so. This was followed by a visit to Japan by HRH Prince Philip, the then President of WWF, who openly requested Japan’s co-operation in wildlife conservation. These events became an important tipping point in terms of CITES implementation and enforcement in Japan.

NGO-led and media-amplified awareness campaigns also resulted in social pressure that led to the closing down of ivory product sales, especially sales of ivory jewellery, by major department stores in Japan, and the phasing out of ivory piano keys, while certain companies and public offices refrained from using ivory hanko.

The economic recession that Japan entered then played a significant role, turning consumers from spenders into savers. Today, a legal ivory market still exists, mainly producing hanko and some traditional musical instruments such as bachi (a plectrum for the shamisen). The study, however, also emphasises the necessity to deal with current issues in Japan, including the regulatory loopholes in the domestic ivory management system and recent seizures of illegal ivory exports, and as well as the considerable ignorance and indifference observed amongst current consumers, especially the younger generation.

“Whilst the Government of Japan is encouraged to share proactively its experience with other CITES Parties to reduce illegal supply of and demand for wildlife products, more effort is needed to address current issues in its remaining legal domestic markets”, said Tomomi Kitade, co-author of the report.

Tens of thousands of African Elephants have been poached annually in recent years, while last year more than 1,300 rhinos were illegally killed across Africa.

“Changed consumer behaviour in Asia has previously contributed to bringing Africa’s beleaguered wildlife back from the brink: we need to repeat that success today to save these species once again”, said Kuehl.


Click here for a copy of the full report Setting Suns: the Historical Decline of Ivory and Rhino Horn Markets in Japan (2.3MB).

For more information and photographs:
Ryoko Nishino, Communication Assistant, TRAFFIC, Japan Office.

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