Wanted Dead or Alive

Japan’s Illicit Animal Trade



(Published in the Japan International Journal,Tokyo, 1993)


keith harmon snow





            At home, criticism of Japan is quickly dismissed as “Japan bashing,” the cornerstone argument used in pro-whaling and pro-timber industry publicity campaigns, and is less than subtly swept away by a technique called “green-washing” --millions of yen spent on manipulating fact and fancy. Yet even so, some experts claim that Japan is home to the largest illegal wildlife trade in the world—and there is little doubt she has earned this title.  And no one knows who to trust.  The Japanese government has its experts with their own methods of counting and evaluating.  The conservationists have theirs.  They never agree.  I had always counted on my god of sorts, the wildlife and wilderness savior WWF—the World Wide Fund for Nature or World Wildlife Fund in Britain.  But no longer.  How easily our heroes fall.


            The story of Japan’s endangered species trade revolves around TRAFFIC Japan, the local arm of TRAFFIC International, a wildlife watchdog organization.  TRAFFIC offices around the world are closely affiliated with WWF.  But TRAFFIC Japan—designed with greater independence—was recently crushed by the powerful trustees of WWF Japan.  WWF officers call it “integration”.  I call it neutralization.


            In 1984 TRAFFIC exposed Japan’s huge cat trade, where coats of the endangered clouded leopard sold for US$124,000, tiger-skin jackets for US$90,000, and snow-leopard coats for US$33,000.  In 1985, the ivory trade was the issue, with Japan responsible for over 45 percent of world consumption.


            In 1986, it was the vast illegal trade in protected cactus species.  And in 1987, it was the sea turtle trade.  Japan, again, was number one.  The golden lion tamarin scandal rocked the international conservation community in 1985, when 11 golden lion tamarins—very rare primates—were illegally imported to Japan.  The importer, Takashi Aritake, a reputed illegal trader, made a killing.  The tamarins were sold for about one million yen each.  Customs documents approved by the Japanese government falsely declared the country of origin to be Guyana.  But the tamarins were smuggled out of Brazil.  And Brazil wanted them back.


            Under intense pressure themselves, the Japanese government pressured WWF Japan to recover the tamarins and return them to Brazil.


            WWF complied, using over ten million yen from their cache of conservation donations.  In exchange however, they pushed the government to pass a law adhering Japan to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  And so, the monkeys were sent home, and the first and only wildlife law was passed in 1987.


            According to former TRAFFIC Japan director Tom Milliken, the animal dealer Takashi Aritake has been involved in some of the most sensational illegal wildlife cases TRAFFIC dealt with—the golden lion tamarins, Andean condors, and gorillas.  TRAFFIC took on the big animal dealers over the gorilla trade, where Japan had over 10 percent of the world’s known gorilla collection, and over their entire history they produced only five or six young.  Animals go up for display, they die, they are replaced.  “The interests of the Japanese zoological community are not necessarily those of wildlife conservation,” says Milliken.  “Some zoos are making progress and really trying, like the Tama Zoo.  Others are appalling.  Jane Goodall and Sigourney Weaver spoke out against the horrible conditions at some Japanese zoos.”


            The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, responsible for Japan’s CITES management, was the target of TRAFFIC Japan in 1991.  Through a series of embarrassing press releases,       TRAFFIC documented  the  failings of the one CITES law and its impending (1993) modifications.  They analyzed and critiqued government reports on wildlife import/export statistics, for 1990, where Japan imported 23,007 shipments of wild fauna and flora, parts and derivatives.


            There were major problems.  The endangered Asian aroana fish is a good example:  Of the 1150 specimens which entered the country, 350 did so with forged permits, but only the 800 legal transactions were listed for CITES reporting.  There were 58 shipments of live endangered species and 149 shipments of reptile skins and products not found in the declared country of origin, like wild Nile crocodiles—imported from the USA.  Illegal imports were also permitted from countries where wildlife exports have been almost entirely prohibited for years.  There were 659 shipments of live animals, skins and products from Colombia and Paraguay, for example, where the origin was declared to be wild or unknown.  But Colombia has prohibited exports since March 1989, and Paraguay, since July 1982.


            In November 1991, TRAFFIC Japan documented illegal trade in endangered species through a survey of pet stores in the Tokyo area.  A follow-up investigation in 1992 revealed deteriorating CITES management.  Of some 70 shops randomly selected from what TRAFFIC estimates to be the thousands which exist in Japan, 94 percent were selling endangered species without the required CITES registrations.


            In December 1992, TRAFFIC staff numbered ten.  In January 1993, the TRAFFIC director was assigned to “special fundraising” behind the counter of the WWF Panda shop.  He never came back.  On April 1, the TRAFFIC management committee was abolished, and the TRAFFIC director filed suit against WWF.  By July, only two TRAFFIC staffers remained.  They are now “integrated” into WWF Japan, leaving the sensitive issue of TRAFFIC’s closure to a labor union formed by 25 of WWF’s 40 staff members—all of whom are unhappy with management, restricted in conservation pursuits, and angered by complacency.


            Former director Hideomi Tokunaga attributes TRAFFIC’s demise to the power of big business as it came down through he trustees of WWF.  “There had always been two offices, one for WWF and one for TRAFFIC,” says Tokunaga.  “It was designed this way.  But meetings were held secretly where [WWF] planned the reorganization, until finally all the power of TRAFFIC was gone.  We were an eyesore to them.  But strategically, Japan is one of our most important offices, and to have a gap there is really worrying.  We need a strong leader with a feel for conservation.”


            Chief Executive Director Seizo Handa is one of five people—all formerly of the Japan Synthetic Rubber Company—now filling key WWF positions.  While WWF was barely able to meet the payroll for its 15 or so members in 1988, by 1991, with a staff of over 40, WWF Japan saw a gross income of more than one billion yen.  Handa catapulted WWF Japan from its dependency on WWF International to sixth best fundraiser in the WWF family.


            Of the almost two billion yen raised by WWF in 1991/2 however, only thirty three million was spent on domestic conservation and research, comparable to the conservation of a dragonfly.  This paltry amount, however, shouldn’t be surprising, particularly in a country that has a utilitarian view of nature and a “Special Resort law”—which after it was bulldozed through eh Diet on day in 1987—opened even National Parks to restriction-free development.


            Not that dragonflies are unimportant.  They may even be a favorite snack of the Nagara River salmon, a species doomed to extinction by the controversial Nagara dam.  But WWF management remained mute on the issue, much to the dismay of the WWF labor union.  “We feel we have a sort of duty to our donors,” said Dr. Kazuhiko Ninomia, formerly of Japan Synthetic Rubber Company and now WWF Japan’s Conservation director.  “And if you look at the board of trustees, you can understand this sort of character.”


            Of thirty three WWF trustees—20 are from industry, officers of the Keidanren, Nikkeiren, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tokyo Electric Power, Sony, Toyota—and among the most powerful men in Japan.  Men like Hyosuke Kujiraoka, a member of Japan’s House of Representatives, who secured votes from Tokyo’s Katsushika fur-industry Ward, by consulting for the Japan Fur Association.  Men like Teruzo Yoshina, CEO of Shimizu Construction, formerly instrumental in WWF decision-making, who was arrested in September, 1993, for his part in the Ibarakiken construction industry scandals.  And men like Kazuhiro Tashiro, former Director of the Ueno Zoological Gardens, long-time friend of the man behind the golden lion tamarin scandal, Takashi Aritake.


            In Japan, over two million endangered hawksbill, green, and olive ridley sea turtles were slaughtered prior to 1989.  On average, 100 tons of ivory were being consumed every year, prior to 1989.  The fur industry sewed up over US$440 million in small mammals in 1991 alone.  Over 2450 whales have been harpooned since the 1986 moratorium.  Over the 1989-1990 period, 15,798 of the world’s primates were used for experimentation.  Over 2000 endangered sea turtles and 2200 endangered Asiatic black bears are killed annually.


            Lists, numbers, statistics.  The human population rising, forests and futures falling.  Another species joining the thousands threatened with extinction.


            The thousands of wild creatures we all see and take for granted, images we own, which cannot be taken away.  But they belong to a passing era.  As more of the earth suffers, the scourge of our negligence and apathy—development, decay, disaster—so more of our resources enter the realm of forever dead, lost, gone.


            We have seen the evidence, the stories, the news specials showing monkeys for sale on the streets of despair, feeding distended tummies and the hunger of the wildlife trade.


            Look at the statistics for Japan again, only this time use your imagination to put these creatures into their herds, schools, flocks, or pods—and run them wildly in their private Edens.  Still we put our wilderness into cages, trophies, shoes, coats, rugs...or tin cans.


            At some point, it will come to a stop.


Welcome to the Akagi Morgue


            A tiger leaps out of the darkness, a teethy snarl frozen on its face forever.  Ghostly shadows creep and crawl all around me as the light draws hundreds of other creatures out of the darkness.  Welcome to the Akagi Morgue.


            The lights in the display window of Akagi Trading Company signal on and off.  Kihachi Matsuzaki unlocks the office door and impatiently paces in and out, stopping each time to reshape the ear of a mounted arctic timber wolf stirring just inside. Outside, a man briskly crosses the street to meet him.  They disappear inside.


            Who was the visitor and why the secrecy?  Another dealer in endangered species?  One of Matsuzaki’s suppliers or buyers?  Or perhaps Mr. Sugiura, an official documents specialist and possibly a forger of customs import documents?


            Kihachi Matsuzaki could easily liquidate his company’s inventory and empty out the walk-in freezers and storerooms of everything from the frozen sea turtles and serpents to the lions and black bears.  But no amount of money could rid him of the one skeleton in his closet which has come back to haunt him now.  To the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kihachi Matsuzaki is the big one that got away.


            In Washington State in 1984, federal agents posing as taxidermists implanted radio transmitters in stuffed bald eagles.  The eagles turned up later, hidden inside stuffed black bears—legal exports—bound for Japan.  An informant fingered Kihachi Matsuzaki as the buyer, at US$500 an eagle.  But the US prosecution failed to act within the requirements of the statute of limitations, and, in 1989, all charges were dropped.  “Matsuzaki came over here and issued a standing order for bald eagles,” says the arresting agent.  “He traveled up and down the coast with an interpreter.  But he was never arrested.  Everyone got off free.  The DA’s office even issued an apology.”


            Whether or not the US F&W Services’ efforts to snag Matsuzaki only drove his US smuggling operations further underground, today he remains a major dealer in the international wildlife trade—a supplier to taxidermists and private collectors.  While no bald eagles were seen there, other endangered species are migrating en masse through the Akagi wasteland.


            They are species taken from all walks of life, rigid and silent in death.  There are parrots and parakeets; falcons, crows, and chickens.  Exotic primates haunt the ceilings: eyes open wide, their primal screams drowning in the silence of the morgue.  It’s a menagerie of death, a museum, with lions, leopards, tigers, and cubs; timber wolves, zebra and claves of dairy cows.  A polar bear’s paws form a work bench.  A tiny hummingbird gathers dust on a shelf.  Bears are poised to maul you.  And there are bags of furs, cases of butterflies, trophy trout tacked to the wall.  Antlers and horns are piled to the ceiling.  There is an army of Japanese raccoon dogs, silently marching into oblivion, bow ties ringing necks, bamboo hats on heads, smiles frozen on faces.  But it is not about frozen smiles or tears.  It’s about money.


            Like any morgue, this one has its freezers packed with the dead.  In this frozen wasteland are bodies not yet eternalized by the taxidermist’s scalpel and glue.  Chunks of seals and sea turtles.  More exotic birds.  On top of one pile is a clouded leopard—rarest of the rare.


            Had the police acted then, when they were tipped off, they would have found a tiger skin stretched to dry over a sheet of plywood, the scalp in a nearby freezer.  And the striped fur with its border of gristly flesh and empty eye sockets, deformed and frozen, is a startling mask of death.  It mocks Japan’s membership in CITES, the world’s premier wildlife conservation agreement.  And like the tiger’s mangled scalp, Japan’s single-wildlife law is toothless, devoid of substance and soul.


            Kihachi Marsuzaki got away once in 1985.  But, today, knowing that many of the species at Akagi Trading are threatened with extinction and strictly prohibited from commercial trade, we decided to try to catch him again.  The logical route would be through TRAFFIC Japan, whose sole purpose is to monitor and regulate the commercial wildlife trade.


            They take the information to the police, but up against guns and drugs, wildlife is the lame duck.  At the time of writing, the police have done nothing, “and maybe they are not so interested,” says TRAFFIC.


            They might be interested in Kihachi Matsuzaki’s address book.  Inside are names of people in embassies and government; customs; animal traders, and cold storage companies around the world.  And there are those who have been stung by the US Fish & Wildlife service, like Matsuzaki’s interpreter and guide, who are known problem people.  “I’ve never seen Matsuzaki,” says the US agent, “but I know his daughter lives in the States and his son-in-law recently enrolled in a taxidermy course; he’s probably still working in the States.”


            A former director of TRAFFIC Japan, Tom Milliken, says “One of the things which was clear when I was there, was that taxidermists get their stuff direct fro the zoo community.  But I feel it’s inappropriate for dead specimens to go into commercial trade—this stimulates the market.  Imports are allowed only for non-commercial purposes.  Areas with zoos are amongst those gray areas we go round and round with.  If an animal dies, I don’t believe a zoo can turn around and sell it.  It becomes illegal trade.”


            At the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Kazutoshi Itoh, wildlife records keeper, agrees.  Dismayed by the pictures from Akagi Trading, Itoh says that most dead zoo animals are incinerated, and some are donated to government institutions, like the National Science Museum.  But sale to taxidermists is clearly illegal.  And with few clouded leopards registered in zoos in Japan, and no record of a recent death, Itoh confirms that Matsuzaki’s animals are probably illegal.


            In August 1992, Akagi Trading Company bought five polar bears, one bobcat, and five river otters, from International Fur Dressers and Dyers in Canada, for US$23,076.   Early in 1993, they ordered an elephant shoulder mount (US$4,500)  and a rhino at the same price, from Trans-African Taxidermists in Tanzania.  In June, more bobcats and polar bears.  The big white bears come in for US$4,300, bobcats at US$200, walrus skulls with tusks at US$800, and timber wolves at US$375.


            In Japan, the prices are dramatically different.  Polar bears sell for more than US$10,000, timber wolves for US$5,800, and lions roar in at US$29,000.  Matsuzaki is making more than a killing.


            According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the North American species would be illegal US exports under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, unless they were native-American artifacts or handicrafts.  And since Canada restricts exports to allotted kills from indigenous hunts, Matsuzaki must be driving the slaughter.


            “We found that natives along the coast of Alaska,” says a US agent, “would go out to remote islands with AK-47s, or other semi-automatic weapons, and shoot as many walrus as they could find floating on pieces of  ice, cutting their heads off with a chainsaw before they sank.”


            When I sat across the table from Kihachi Matsuzaki in October last year, he told me through an interpreter that he “has very little interest in wildlife and no dealings with endangered species.”  A heavy-set fifty-something-year-old, he was ostensibly very friendly and claimed to have switched his business from wildlife to real estate.  “Since bald eagle trade is illegal in the US,” he explained, “we have had nothing to do with such operations.  We can always go to Canada for North American species.  But we don’t deal with Canadian companies—and haven’t for three years.”


            I had seen raptors, sea turtles, tiger, and more, and Matsuzaki denied everything.  Where do his species come from?  From his address book it could be anywhere from New Zealand to China to Peru, most likely he got his paws on them from an intricate network of international smugglers, and carried them straight through Japanese customs into Tokyo.


            As the interview came to a close, I asked if we might take a quick tour of the premises.  Matsuzaki pretended not to hear.   And what about the freezers, the big freezers with the compressors running outside, what is in them?  “The freezers?”  Matsuzaki feigned ignorance.  “Nothing...tiny, miscellaneous things...animal parts...nothing important...parts which are rotten.”


            There is definitely something rotten at Akagi Trading.  JIJ