LONDON, 21st November (PTI) Elephants feature heavily in mythology, religion and popular culture. However, they are hunted for their ivory. Ivory poaching has led to a 70% decline in African elephant numbers over the past 40 years.
Ivory has always been a precious commodity. It has a variety of uses, from being used in traditional medicine to musical instruments. More recently, ivory has been carved into jewelry and ornaments, mostly for decoration.
But the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). There are now 184 countries bound by the agreement. However, some legal domestic markets still exist, undermining efforts to stop the ivory trade. More than 42 tons of illegal ivory were seized globally in 2019, the fourth-highest annual record in the past 30 years.
However, Japan, which accounted for about one-third of the global ivory trade between 1979 and 1989 and still has a legal domestic market, saw its demand for ivory plummet. By 2014, the annual output value of Japan’s ivory industry was only 13% of what it was in 1989.
A number of factors have contributed to the decline in demand for ivory in Japan, but lack of data on ivory purchases and consumer motivations has limited research into the reasons for this change. We conducted a study to determine what factors had an impact on reducing demand for ivory in Japan.
What is driving this change?
To do this, we conducted an impact assessment. We list 35 potentially important factors that could lead to a decline in demand for ivory in Japan. These include the Cites international ivory trade ban, pressure from leading conservationists, Japan’s 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 expertise, whether they thought each factor was likely to affect ivory demand, and how.
After ruling out less plausible explanations, we looked for supporting evidence. Our analysis shows that the Cites international trade ban and the domestic recession that began in 1992 and led to a period of economic stagnation were the main reasons for the decline in Japanese demand.
All respondents felt that these two factors had the greatest impact. They have reduced the amount of ivory available for purchase and the ability of people to buy it.
These factors provide the initial stimulus. But other cultural factors, including a post-recession shift in society from ostentatiously expensive goods, have accelerated the reduction in demand.
Respondents also indicated that Japanese demand for ivory is relatively passive. If ivory is available for sale, people will buy it, but if it is scarce, they will not seek it out. This is in stark contrast to countries such as China, which have seen thriving informal markets develop to meet demand in the wake of international trade bans.
Environmentalists often point to targeted demand reduction campaigns as the key to reducing demand for ivory in Japan. Instead, our analysis suggests that they played a secondary role in bringing about change.
There is little evidence that these activities have directly affected consumers. But they effectively put indirect pressure on retailers to stop supplying ivory. This further reduces the availability of ivory items in shops.
Protection is not always intentional
Given the long-term decline in Japanese ivory demand, our analysis concludes that Japan’s ivory market no longer poses a threat to elephant populations. However, it is still important to prevent illegal exports to countries where ivory is still highly valued. It is also useful to track consumer data over time to see how demand fluctuates with the Japanese business cycle.
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 ban on international trade in Cites coincided with a recession in Japan and accelerated a cultural shift away from conspicuous consumption of ivory. Otherwise, a thriving informal market may have been established.
Environmental campaigns that have forced retailers to reduce their stocks of ivory products have also proven effective by exploiting passive demand. This gives us insight into why international trade bans have been less effective in reducing demand for ivory in other countries.
Environmentalists need to better understand local conditions and listen to local voices when designing policies. Researchers and practitioners must also track broader market changes, such as recessions or a move away from conspicuous consumption, to predict any potential impact on specific industries.
Lessons from this study may also apply to other wildlife trades in Japan with similar motivational drivers. These include decorative shells (turtle shells) or precious woods. (conversation)
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