As a longtime detective in Japan, Lt. Michinori Jimbo has caught a lot of crooks and solved a lot of crimes, from murder and robbery to drug smuggling.
But he’s not accustomed to protecting another category of victim. Elephants. Rhinos. Sea turtles. Parrots. Crocodiles.
As part of a cross-cultural training session, U.S. wildlife agents on Thursday showed Jimbo and 25 other Japanese police officers how to stem illegal trade and poaching of protected animals. Japan is the world’s second-largest importer of illegal wildlife products, after the United States.
“We don’t want to Japan-bash, but we want to convey to them that these are important laws, and show them the extent of this trade,” said Landis McIntire, director of the Wildlife Information Network, an international consortium of educators and scientists that helped set up the seminar. “It’s devastating what’s going on, and we want to give the Japanese an opportunity, instead of just condemning them.”
The members of the Japanese National Police Force were brought to California by UC Irvine as part of a program that teams international officers with various branches of U.S. law enforcement for nine weeks of training. Thursday’s two-hour seminar was the first time that enforcement of wildlife law was incorporated into the program.
“This is a long-neglected part of law enforcement. It is not a priority for most nations,” McIntire said.
Around the globe, import and export of wildlife are big business. Despite several international laws protecting endangered species and marine mammals, wildlife trade is a $4-billion enterprise annually, with about 30% believed to be illegal, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Some say it’s second internationally only to the drug trade. And it’s growing,” said Herb Curry of the federal wildlife agency.
Criticized for decades for being slow to protect wildlife, the government of Japan has recently begun to reverse that trend, and was commended by environmentalists for its stands on endangered species issues at the recent international Earth Summit in Brazil.
Jimbo said one of the biggest barriers to protecting wildlife in his country is cultural. Many Japanese find wildlife products such as furs and boots irresistible, he said, and do not understand that they are illegal and causing the extinction of the animals.
“Japanese people like ivory statues. Me, too. Sea turtles and animal skins, too,” Jimbo said. “It’s difficult to control because the smuggler gets a lot of money.”
The U.S. agents said they hope Thursday’s session will raise the consciousness of their Japanese counterparts.
“Education is a big key to saving endangered wildlife,” said Mike Osborn, supervisory wildlife inspector at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Torrance. “We’re doing this because, in a lot of ways, their recognition of this problem is behind. They have an entirely different view of wildlife than we do in the West. But they have taken a recent interest in it, and we want to make sure that continues.”
The Japanese officers were shown a variety of illegally imported wildlife items, from a stuffed African lion confiscated in California to a crocodile purse--with head and paws intact--seized in Korea. Among the popular items overseas are bear gallbladders, which are used as aphrodisiacs, and tiger bones, which are used as a Chinese folk medicine. Others include ivory figurines, stuffed sea turtles, live parrots, tortoise-shell combs, walrus tusks and rhinoceros horns.
Using a translator, the U.S. agents told their Japanese counterparts to watch for those illegal products, since most wildlife trading occurs when they are imported from Third World countries into wealthier nations such as Japan and the United States.
Often, the U.S. agents told the Japanese officers, wildlife smuggling goes hand-in-hand with narcotics operations. Animal products are sometimes found smuggled in with drugs, and in Alaska, walrus heads and seal skins are sometimes traded for marijuana, Osborn said.
The U.S. agents also described how one undercover investigation in 1988 resulted in the arrest of a man who admitted to a $20-million illegal hunting operation that killed 1,800 bears in Alaska and what was then the Soviet Union.
The Japanese officers said they were surprised at the size of the illegal trade, as well as the extent of U.S. law-enforcement efforts to stop it. But Curry told them “we are grossly undermanned,” since in the United States alone, wildlife imports are a $600-million business. “We need your help,” he said.