Japan’s ivory market is no longer a threat to elephant populations – here’s
Laura Thomas-Walters, The Conversation
November 18, 2022
Elephants feature heavily in mythology, religion and popular culture. Yet
they are hunted for their ivory tusks. Ivory poaching has led to a 70%
decline in African elephant numbers over the past 40 years.
Ivory has always been a prized commodity. It has served a variety of
purposes, from use in traditional medicines to musical instruments. More
recently, ivory is carved into jewellery and ornaments and used primarily
But the international ivory trade was banned under the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 1989. One hundred and
eighty-four countries are now bound by this agreement. However, some legal
domestic markets persist, undermining efforts to stop the ivory trade. Over
42 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized worldwide in 2019, the fourth
highest annual tally in the past 30 years.
Yet Japan, which between 1979 and 1989 was responsible for roughly
one-third of the global ivory trade and still possesses a legal domestic
market, has seen a dramatic reduction in ivory demand. By 2014, the annual
value of the Japanese ivory industry was just 13% of what it was in 1989.
Various factors have been heralded for reducing Japanese ivory demand, but
a lack of data on ivory purchases and consumer motivations has limited
research into the cause of this change. We conducted a study to determine
which factors were influential in reducing Japanese ivory demand.
What Has Driven the Change?
For this, we carried out an impact evaluation. We compiled a list of 35
potentially important factors that could have led to a fall in Japanese
demand for ivory. These included the Cites international ivory trade ban,
pressure from leading conservationists, Japan’s economic recession, and
targeted demand reduction campaigns.
We then interviewed 35 people with expertise in the Japanese ivory trade,
including academics, NGO workers, members of the Japanese government and
ivory traders and carvers. We asked them, based on their expert knowledge,
whether they thought each of the factors may have affected ivory demand,
After eliminating less plausible explanations, we looked for supporting
evidence. Our analysis indicated that the Cites international trade ban and
a domestic economic recession, that started in 1992 and led to a period of
economic stagnation, were the main reasons for the reduction in Japanese
demand. Both factors were cited by all of the interviewees as having the
largest impact. They reduced both the amount of ivory that was available to
purchase and people’s ability to afford it.
These factors provided the initial stimulus. But other cultural factors,
including the societal shift away from flaunting expensive goods following
the recession, accelerated the reduction in demand.
Interviewees also indicated that demand for ivory in Japan was relatively
passive. If ivory was available for sale, people would buy it, but if it
were scarce they would not seek it out. This contrasts with countries such
as China, which have seen thriving informal markets develop to satisfy
demand following the international trade ban.
Conservationists often point to targeted demand reduction campaigns as key
in reducing Japanese ivory demand. Our analysis instead suggests that they
played a secondary role in bringing about change.
There was little evidence to suggest that these campaigns influenced
consumers directly. But they were effective in placing indirect pressure on
retailers to stop supplying ivory. This further reduced the availability of
ivory products in shops.
Conservation is Not Always Intentional
Given the long-term reduction in Japanese ivory demand, our analysis
concluded that Japan’s ivory market no longer represents a threat to
elephant populations. Yet it remains important to prevent illegal exports
to countries where ivory is still highly valued. It would also be useful to
track consumer data over time to see how demand fluctuates with Japan’s
Our study supports the view that conservation outcomes are context-specific
and often determined by changes unrelated to the natural environment. The
introduction of the Cites international trade ban coincided with Japan’s
economic recession and accelerated Japan’s cultural shift away from
conspicuous ivory consumption. Without this, a flourishing informal market
may have been established.
By exploiting passive demand, environmental campaigns to pressure retailers
into stocking fewer ivory products also proved effective. This offers an
insight into why the international trade ban has proved less successful in
reducing ivory demand in other countries.
Conservationists need to better understand local conditions and listen to
local voices when designing policies. Researchers and practitioners must
also track wider market changes, such as recessions or shifts away from
conspicuous consumption, to anticipate any potential impact on specific
trades. The lessons of this study may also apply to other wildlife trades
with similar motivational drivers in Japan. These include ornamental bekko
(turtle shell) or luxury timber.