How countries can wean off ivory trade: the example of Japan
Mihai Andrei, ZME Science
November 21, 2022
In the 1980s, Japan was responsible for about a third of the global ivory
trade. Now, although the country still possesses a significant ivory
market, researchers say Japan is no longer a threat to elephant
populations. So how can we build on this for other countries?
Ivory has been a prized commodity for thousands of years, being used either
for decorations and jewelry or for traditional medicine (although ivory has
never been shown to have any medicinal value). But ivory trade is fueling
extinction: over 14,000 animals are killed every year for their tusks (an
average of 40 a day), and over 80% of the planet’s elephants have been
killed over the past century.
For decades, conservationists have struggled to get nations to stop trading
ivory. In 1989, major progress was made: the international sale of ivory
was banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Almost every country on the planet has signed CITES — but still, some legal
domestic markets persist, and the ivory trade is far from over. In fact,
over 42 tons of illegal ivory were seized in 2019, one of the largest
amounts seized in the past few decades.
Japanese officials have taken a decades-long stance that the country’s
ivory market complies with sustainable trade and is tightly controlled, and
therefore does not need any bans, dismissing calls from CITES.
Assessing whether this is actually the case is no easy feat, but in a new
analysis, a team of researchers from the UK concluded that there’s some
truth and Japan is no longer a driving force in the demand for ivory. But
while Japan’s trajectory could serve as a model for other countries driving
ivory demand (especially China), its trajectory wasn’t straightforward.
The Winding Road to Stopping Ivory Trade
Traditionally, Japan has been a big driver of ivory trade. But by 2014, the
annual value of the Japanese ivory industry was just 13% of what it was in
1989. But figuring out exactly what drove this reduction is enormously
complex, especially since there is not much data on ivory trade in Japan.
“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,” the study authors write in an article
for The Conversation.
“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 compiling all this into a plausible list, the researchers got to
digging, looking for evidence that would support these suspected causes.
They found two main initial drivers: the CITES international trade ban and
a domestic economic recession that started in 1992 and led to a period of
economic stagnation. These two factors substantially reduced demand for
ivory — but this was just the start.
Cultural factors, like a societal shift away from flaunting expensive goods
then started playing a more significant role and continued to drive the
reduction in demand.
“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,” the authors add.
The findings are particularly important considering that ivory trade is
driven by Asian countries, particularly China, Thailand, Vietnam, and the
Philippines. Many in these countries have a positive opinion of ivory and
would like to own it, though paradoxically, many also support ivory bans.
For instance, 71% of the interviewed people in Vietnam said they would like
to buy ivory, and at the same time, 91% of them would like a complete ban
But this new study shows that even without a complete ban, there can be
progress, and as demand for ivory dropped in Japan due to various cultural
pressures, so too could be the case in other countries.
Conservation is not always intentional, the researchers note, and
researchers and conservationists looking to protect elephants would be wise
to note cultural factors and listen to the local voices to see what other,
indirect factors, could help reduce the demand for ivory (and other animal
However, there’s still a problem in Japan: even with its demand dropping,
it could still be a hub for illegal exports to other countries. As the
price of ivory has increased more than 1,000% since the international ban,
this needs to be tracked carefully, the researchers conclude.
“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