Shell Shocked: Japan’s Role In The Illegal Tortoiseshell Trade



WWF Japan

The Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is one of seven species of marine turtles and is listed as “Critically Endangered” (CR) in the IUCN Red ListTM . Their shells have unique patterns that have made them sought after in manufacturing tortoiseshell items (called “bekko” in Japanese) over many centuries. Since 1977 the species has been included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), thereby prohibiting the international commercial trade in the animals, their parts, and derivatives. Japan is one of the world’s largest historical tortoiseshell markets and a country where the manufacturing industry and domestic trade in tortoiseshell are allowed to continue legally today. Efforts are being made globally to address the unsustainable or illegal take and trade in marine turtles. Uncovering the illegal trade patterns and their drivers in key source, transit, and consumer countries is essential to inform these efforts and ensure they are targeted and effective. This report provides an overview of the current situation in Japan, including the trends in illegal imports of marine turtle commodities— hawksbill tortoiseshell, in particular—an analysis of manufacturers’ stockpiles, domestic regulations, and online trade. Japan Customs seizure records revealed that an estimated total of 564 kg of hawksbill tortoiseshell were seized in 71 illegal importation incidents between 2000 and 2019, representing some 530 Hawksbill Turtles. Just over half (289 kg) was seized in 2015–2019 alone. The major source region appears to have possibly shifted from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean in recent years. The primary method of transport throughout the period was international mail, accounting for 93% of all incidents.

Manufacturers’ stockpiles reported to the government show that 188.4 tonnes of raw tortoiseshell existed in 1995, of which 28.7 tonnes (15%) remained by 2017. The number of businesses holding stocks did not change drastically, going from 222 in 1998 to 175 in 2017. Given the infrequent government spot checks, continuing incoming seizures of tortoiseshells and their links to the active manufacturing industry, it is highly questionable whether the reported stockpiles truly refl ect the actual tortoiseshell stocks in the country. Current domestic legislation relies primarily on manufacturers self-reporting their transaction records and stockpile balance and exempts most tortoiseshell products (except for whole specimens/carapaces) from registration requirements. This lax legislation likely exacerbates the entry of illegally sourced raw material into the domestic supply chain. Finally, a snapshot survey of a major online auction platform revealed that a minimum of 8,202 sales of hawksbill products (unused and secondhand) took place in 2019, totalling JPY102 million (USD936, 850). Fewer than 1% of these sales fell under the domestic legislation, leaving the remainder as legal trade but effectively unregulated given the lack of rules governing trade in fi nished products. In light of the evidence presented here, this study concludes Japan should: 1) strengthen law enforcement to tackle illegal trade with traceability controls; 2) tighten control of stockpiles and domestic trade regulations; 3) introduce voluntary bans on online sales of tortoiseshell by e-commerce companies 


To read the full report online, please click here.