Japanese ivory figurine © Ashley Van Haeften / Creative Commons 2.0

Japanese ivory figurine © Ashley Van Haeften / Creative Commons 2.0


Published 23 June 2017

Ivory seizure exposes Japan’s lax domestic ivory trade controls

Tokyo, Japan, 23rd June 2017—Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department announced on 20th June the seizure of 18 ivory tusks believed to be in illegal trade in violation of LCES[1], the Japanese legislation that regulates trade in threatened species. 

The seizure was said to relate to a number of illegal ivory transactions conducted between December 2015 and February 2016 involving 27 suspects, including the owner and the employees of a Tokyo-based antiques company and customers who sold their personally owned tusks to the company. 

The antiques company is suspected to have purchased the 18 ivory tusks without the appropriate government registration documents.[2]. According to media reports,[3] the company owner has admitted to buying more than 400 tusks in the last five years and habitually applying for registration documents using false statements about their origin. 

The Ministry of the Environment (MoE), the body that oversees ivory registrations, has told TRAFFIC that, according to police information, the 18 seized tusks are not thought to be of recent origin. However, the MoE have been unable to ascertain whether the company at the centre of the allegations has been misusing the registration scheme to launder tusks illegally imported into Japan.

The case further highlights concerns over the lax proof-of-legality requirements under MOE’s ivory registration operations, where third party affidavits and official personal identifications are accepted in lieu of official proof such as Customs documentation. 

“Although analysis of ivory seizure records held in ETIS[4] suggests the likelihood of newly poached ivory entering the Japanese market is low, such regulatory loopholes clearly undermine control of Japan’s active domestic market,” said Tomomi Kitade, Programme Officer for TRAFFIC in Japan.

“The effectiveness of Japan’s internal ivory trade regulations is further brought into question given the company has allegedly been operating as a ‘legitimate’ ivory business by making mandatory notifications to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which would suggest the company was aware and took advantage of the weak regulations and enforcement.” 

“Registration of all ivory tusks should be a mandatory requirement in Japan with penalties for those who fail to comply. This must also be accompanied by a solid traceability marking system and a strict proof-of-legality requirement to prevent any laundering of tusks illegally imported into Japan.”

Last month, the Japanese government revised LCES to tighten the registration of ivory businesses, with stricter legal consequences in case of non-compliance. 

“While enforcing the new LCES regulations will be critical to deterring illegal activities, Japan’s domestic ivory market is still filled with loopholes that are leaking substantial quantities of ivory to other markets, such as China,” said Dr Yannick Kuehl, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in East Asia.

“Given CITES Parties last year recommended the closure of domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching and/or illegal trade, an overhaul of Japan’s market oversight and regulation is urgently needed to ensure it does not undermine the global fight against illegal ivory trade.” 


[1] The Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

[2] LCES prohibits the domestic trade of “International Endangered Species”—species listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), with an exception for specimens registered with the government with a proof of legal import. However, for ivory this regulation applies only to whole tusks—other ivory products are exempted, requiring neither registration nor any other proof of legality.

[3] Asahi Newspaper
Sankei Newspaper

[4] The Elephant Trade Information System, managed by TRAFFIC on behalf of Parties to CITES