Japan's biggest ivory smuggler walks free as government schemes to market contraband

Monday, August 13, 2007
Tokyo, Japan
A Japanese court has flattered the country's worst ivory smuggler with a most lenient penalty, while officials at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry scheme to market his three tons of contraband into legal trade.
Japan's press reported yesterday that an unidentified "company president" who attempted to smuggle three tons of contraband ivory - the country's largest-ever illegal ivory shipment - into Osaka in August 2006 was "sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term" and fined 800,000 yen (6,723 USD) as penalty.  Japanese Customs valued the consignment at one billion yen (8.4 million USD).  The penalty imposed amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of the contraband's value.  The sentence was passed in July, but not reported until yesterday.
 
Meanwhile, Japan's Daily Yomiuri reports, "some officials at the ministry (METI) voiced opposition to burning it, saying it would be wasteful."
 
"On the contrary, how could METI put three tons of ivory to a beneficial, and legal, use? It's simply an inexcusable evasion of responsibility,”, responds Michael Wamithi, Program Manager for IFAW’s (International Fund for Animal Welfare – www.ifaw.org) global elephant campaigning and former director of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). “Japan claims to have a comprehensive and demonstrably effective enforcement system for ivory. But, a comprehensive enforcement system includes meaningful justice, and an effective enforcement system includes destruction of contraband."
 
"This is not the first time that Japanese courts have passed an irresponsibly lenient sentence," Wamithi added, recalling the case of Yoichiro Ichida, who paid an "administrative fine" of 300,000 yen (2,700 USD) after being caught smuggling a half ton of ivory a few years ago.
 
Wamithi also recalled that three KWS rangers were killed protecting elephants on 19 May.  Another three Chadian rangers were killed protecting elephants on 15 May.  "In fact, scores of African rangers are killed by ivory poachers every year.  Sometimes more than a hundred are killed in a year," he said.  "But Japanese courts do not take this terrible tragedy into account when judging the seriousness of the crime.  They don't care about Africans being murdered by criminals who are motivated by the flourishing ivory markets in Japan."
 
"Japanese courts also refuse to acknowledge the cost of this trafficking to the elephants with approximately 20,000 elephants giving their lives each year for the criminal trade. The leniency demonstrates why there is such an increase -- for those who get caught, there is no risk of prison, and the fine is an insignificant cost of doing business," Wamithi added. Japanese delegates did in fact participate in a meeting of CITES (the United Nations-backed endangered species treaty) this past June and witness verification that 40 tons of contraband ivory was seized during 2005 and 2006 -- triple the amount seized during any previous two year period.

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