Japan: The World's Largest Legal Ivory Market

Photographs by Brent Stirton

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Loopholes in Japan’s Legal Ivory Trade Fuels the Black Market

While many countries have shut down or curtailed their domestic ivory trade, Japan enjoys the title of the world’s largest legal ivory market. It has been a dissenting voice in the debate over international ivory trade, banned since 1990, and has twice persuaded global regulators to sanction one-off sales to replenish Japan’s domestic inventory. Despite ostensibly tight controls, investigations by conservation groups have found regulatory loopholes that allow traders to launder ivory for otherwise illegal import and export.

In recent decades, demand for ivory in China was regarded as the primary driver of Africa’s plummeting elephant populations, as poached ivory was illicitly exported and seeped into legal trade. Now that China has shuttered its domestic market, conservationists worry that Japan will become the top destination of black-market ivory, laundered into legitimacy.

“Does ivory leaking from Japan to China satisfy existing demand, or does it boost demand so there’s more poaching of elephants in Africa? These are enormously complex questions,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of The Extinction Market. “What we do know, though, is that regulations in Japan are not adequate to prevent illegal export of ivory.”

In this photo essay, Getty Images photographer Brent Stirton looks inside some of Japan’s 300 manufacturers, 500 wholesalers and 8,200 retailers, such as one salesman in Tokyo who displayed a tray of multi-thousand-dollar ivory hankos, a kind of stamp. Japanese law prohibits foreigners from taking its ivory from the country, but the salesman told Brent that he didn’t know whether or not it was illegal.

More images from this series can be licensed via the Getty Images website.