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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Battle for Ivory

Oct. 5, 2016

International experts have agreed on a way to tighten up on the ivory trade, but Japan has some concerns about what could come next.

Delegates have wrapped up an international meeting on the trading of wildlife with a strong resolution. The conference was organized by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

The main discussion was on ivory. The international trade of ivory was banned in 1989, and at the conference Kenya and 9 other African countries proposed a ban on all domestic ivory markets around the world.

One of the delegates who attended the closed door meeting, says Japan and the EU strongly resisted this proposal, and negotiated a change in wording of the resolution. Instead of banning all domestic markets, the new proposal prohibits only domestic markets that may lead to poaching or illegal trading.

Behind these debates is the increasing global awareness of the risk facing African Elephants. It is said that more than 30,000 elephants in Africa are killed by poachers every year and the species could be extinct within the next decade.

In Tsavo National Park, the largest National park in Kenya, park rangers recently found the body of an elephant. Its tusks had been removed and it seemed to have been dead for about 10 days.

"We are very sad, not only me. We can't enjoy sitting and watching elephants being killed," said one park ranger.

In the past 3 years, more than 300 elephants have been killed in Tsavo alone. The Kenyan government doubled the number of rangers and upgraded their weapons.

But the poachers also have cutting-edge weaponry, and the rangers have suffered casualties.

"They decided to kill one of our commander's corporals. He was shot in the left rib with 4 rounds," says another ranger.

Most of the illegal ivory is believed to be smuggled into China. It is in high demand among newly rich people as the country's economy grows rapidly.

But wildlife conservation is not the only concern of the Kenyan government. It's believed that militant groups and organized crime syndicates use the ivory trade to fund their activities.

"Intelligence reports have indicated that more of those people are dealing with ivory trade and elephant tusk," says a ranger.

In April, the Kenyan government incinerated more than 100 tons of confiscated ivory to underline its resolve to eradicate poaching.

Elephant poaching in Africa is no longer just an environmental crisis -- it's also becoming a threat to national security.

In Japan, the domestic trade in ivory is legal. Japan was the largest importer of ivory in the 80s, and still has a huge domestic market.

The shamisen is a traditional Japanese musical instrument. The plectrum -- called the bachi -- is normally made of ivory. Ivory is also used to produce personal seals for official documents. Japan has been using ivory for hundreds of years.

Toshio Okuma continues the ivory processing business his father started. He reprocesses ivory for use in personal seals.

"This ivory is quite old. It was apparently cut on July 21, 1987," Okuma says.

A global ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989. It banned imports of fresh ivory, so Okuma uses his stock of ivory imported in the past.

In Japan, the ivory trade is regulated by the law and each tusk has to be registered with the government.

When a tusk is cut into several parts, each piece needs to be documented. Those who process ivory are also required to report any sales to the government.

"One needs to document everything, including the exact date and the quantity. Otherwise, you'll be breaking the law," Okuma says.

Okuma is gravely concerned about the possibility of a blanket ban on the domestic ivory trade, as it may mean the disappearance of the Japanese ivory industry.

"It's extremely regrettable. The culture of processing ivory has continued for nearly 400 years in Japan. How can I let my family business end in my generation, saying we just can't produce ivory any more," Okuma says.

On Sunday, a resolution was passed unanimously at the CITES conference in Johannesburg. It called on countries to close domestic ivory markets that are contributing to poaching or illegal trading.

"We are hoping if we close the domestic ivory market we will able to save the African elephants across range of Africa," says Patrick Omondi of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

"This resolution is aimed at shutting the markets that encourage poaching and other illegal activities. Since the Japanese market is strictly controlled, we don't think it has to be closed immediately," says Junya Nakano, an official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.