FOR three generations, despite war, famine, earthquakes, and
recession, the Sunamoto family has a run a shop in Tokyo selling
carved ivory, tiny figurines that are a prized art form in Japan.
But in the past few months, the family's source of elephant ivory
has almost dried up. The Sunamotos' business, along with some 170
other ivory companies in Japan, face extinction.
"Not many customers stop in these days," says Hiroko Iwata, a
Sunamoto shop worker.
But that's the price that Japan, once the world's largest
consumer of ivory, has been willing to pay to avoid primary blame
for endangering the African elephant with extinction.
After decades of buying about 40 percent of the world's ivory
production, Japan officially stopped imports last January. It signed
the so-called Washington treaty of the 103-nation Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species.
The treaty was signed reluctantly, only after asking for a
loophole and then foreseeing that it would be targeted for worldwide
criticism by conservationists. As the largest ivory importer, Japan
was held largely responsible by wildlife conservationists for the
poaching that has cut the number of African elephants to about
620,000, roughly half of the total a decade ago.
Since the import ban began, the Japanese ivory industry has been
struggling to survive. Carvers are working from remaining stocks in
Japan, estimated at about 150 tons, and are searching for
alternative materials - or for alternative work. At its peak, the
industry imported 470 tons of tusks a year.
"Production is down about one-third of what it used to be. The
companies are in trouble," says Shigenobu Terauchi, managing
director of the Japan General Merchandise Importers Association,
which represents about 30 ivory companies.
Consumers, too, are buying fewer items made of ivory, partly out
of a new awareness about the slaughter of elephants by poachers, but
also because prices have more than doubled.
The price of a hanko, the commonly used signature stamp on which
a Japanese name is etched in Chinese characters, now can reach $800
or more, say dealers. Ivory hankos accounted for about half the
ivory consumed in Japan.
Over time, Japanese may need to learn to do without fresh ivory
for their piano keys, chop sticks, jewelry, mah-jongg tiles, and
finger picks for traditional stringed musical instruments.
"Stores are shrinking their space where they sell ivory and some
have stopped selling ivory completely," says Mr. Terauchi. Many
stores followed the lead of a Ginza department store, Mitzukoshi,
which dropped all ivory sales this year. Still, demand for the
authentic creamy-white look of ivory has not completely evaporated,
and Japanese customs inspectors are now alert to ivory smugglers.
The world's largest inventory of tusks is in Hong Kong, where
there is an estimated 600 tons left. Taiwan and China recently
decided to join the import ban. With Europe and the United States
holding fast to the import ban, smugglers find Japan the closest
target to unload the remaining stocks. …