Japanese law for endangered wildlife set for what critics call toothless revamp


Daisuke Kikuchi, The Japan Times

Date Published

The Law on Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is set to be revised once again to further improve government measures to prevent vulnerable animal and plant species from becoming extinct.

Conservationists say they scored some victories in 2016, symbolized by the September announcement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature that the giant panda had been taken off the list of “endangered” animals and is now classified as “vulnerable,” a less-threatening class. The population of wild giant pandas grew to 1,864 in 2014 from 1,596 in 2004.

However, the IUCN’s Red List is still 82,954 items long, with 23,928 species “threatened with extinction.”

Japan is no stranger to the issue. According the Environment Ministry’s Red List published in 2015, 3,596 species in Japan are threatened.

Because the amendment made to the law on conservation required further revisions three years after it took effect, the ministry in November drafted a report on additional measures the government could take and solicited public feedback until Wednesday. Reflecting those comments, a ministry official said another amendment bill will probably be submitted to the Diet by the end of the year.

What is the government doing to protect endangered species?

The conservation law took effect in 1993 as the only one in the nation aimed at preventing wildlife from going extinct.

It was revised 20 years later after conservation groups including World Wildlife Fund Japan argued that the law had become outdated.

Although more than 3,000 species were on Japan’s Red List then, only 90, or 2.5 percent, were actively being targeted for preservation. By comparison, a similar law in the United States covered 1,382 species, with conservation projects underway for 1,137 of them.

After the revision in 2013, the government adopted “supplementary resolutions” affirming that “preserving biodiversity” was the law’s main objective and outlining a need to educate the public about its importance. The resolutions were praised by WWF Japan.

The revision also raised the maximum penalties for violators. Individuals now face up to five years in prison or a ¥5 million fine, instead of a year in prison or a ¥1 million fine, and businesses can be fined up to ¥100 million rather than ¥1 million.

What are the main measures proposed in the draft report?

The 1993 law mandated that the government single out particularly fragile animal and plant species as “vulnerable domestic wildlife” and regulate their domestic trade.

In the 2013 revision, the government set a numerical target of 300 species for the new designation by 2020. So far, 208 have received it, including 33 newly announced in December. These include insects such as the Kumejima firefly that inhabits Okinawa.

The same month saw restrictions slapped on domestic and international trade in 22 foreign species, including the African gray parrot, a popular pet, and the Pangolin, which was considered nearly extinct by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Johannesburg last year.

However, the biggest takeaway from the report is that there are limits to what the government alone can do. Out of the 208 designated vulnerable species, measures have been taken to help only 63, led mainly by the government with assistance from private-sector organizations.

The report says conservation programs should also involve facilities such as zoos and botanical gardens, adding that protection and breeding campaigns “will be limited if run only by the government.”

In addition, it says intensive capturing and harvesting by commercial traders is a big concern. Revisions should be made to restrict such practices while leaving room for capturing endangered species for research, it says.

What measures are being proposed to restrict trade in ivory or other items made from vulnerable species?

The current law requires owners of ivory acquired from internationally endangered species, including elephants, as well as owners of animals obtained before they were deemed endangered and covered by CITES regulations, to obtain a license from the Environment Ministry to keep or trade such goods. Such licenses must also be returned if any of the ivory that was in their possession was cut into pieces.

In addition, owners of endangered species must return the license to the ministry if the protected plant or animal in their possession dies. The ministry points out that the maximum fine for violating the process — ¥300,000 — is low, which means licenses often remain unreturned and are used by unscrupulous businesses to trade unregistered items.

To counter the problem, the ministry is proposing that microchips be attached to all registered wildlife.

What do conservationists think of the draft report?

The law aims to protect both domestic and foreign species present in Japan from extinction. However, conservationists say the law lacks teeth and encourages the poaching of African elephants and other species abroad.

The CITES conference in October voted unanimously to ban domestic trade of elephant ivory, but a clause was attached to let Japan continue using ivory, mostly for hanko (personal seals) or accessories, after the nation’s representatives claimed the market here is rigorously controlled.

The U.S., by contrast, almost banned ivory trade entirely in July, and China announced in December that it would shut down its market by the end of 2017.

In the report, the ministry proposes that all businesses be required to list their trading license numbers in ads online, where most of the trading takes place, because it is difficult for the public to tell which businesses are legal.

Although the ministry has been cracking down on illegal traders, conservationists say the domestic ivory trade is providing shelter for illegal traders and smugglers.

There are “several thousand tons” of ivory that domestic traders are hoarding in the form of whole tusks and large pieces, WWF Japan said, urging the government to introduce a stricter inspection and registration mechanism for such items.