Countries around the world are burning ivory stockpiles. It’s a powerful symbol against the illegal trade in elephant tusks that resulted in as many as 30,000 elephant deaths last year. But those demonstrations can only be so effective when a legal market for ivory trade exists. And according to a new report (pdf) from the Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO, one of the world’s biggest digital companies is facilitating not only a brisk business in illegal ivory, but also the sale of meat from endangered whales.
Rakuten Ichiba—the Japanese online marketplace of Rakuten Group, a digital giant that recently bought messaging app Viber—offers products made from endangered animals that can fetch up to ¥2,640,000 ($28,186) (link in Japanese), shows EIA’s investigation. This might be morally outrageous, but it’s not—at least on the face of it—illegal; Japan claims exceptions to international bans on the the commercial trade of elephant ivory and whale meat. And it shows how futile laws protecting threatened animals are as long as they have loopholes.
The problem is that it’s extremely hard to tell legal from illegal. That perpetuates demand for poached ivory. As of Feb. 2014, Rakuten Ichiba featured 28,000 ads for elephant ivory products, most of which were for hanko (link in Japanese), the seals used in Japan to sign documents. These ranged from ¥3,800 to ¥320,000 ($36 to $3,126). However, EIA reports that the site also sells ivory from endangered elephants in Central Africa. It surmises this based on the size of the items for sale, since large tusks almost certainly come from new sources (pdf, p.61).
When it comes to whales, things are slightly different. Japan is, along with Iceland and Norway, the only country in the world that demands an exception to international ban on commercial hunting of whales, which it does so under the auspices of “scientific research.” Arguing that whale meat is the “byproduct” of said research, the government subsidizes the industry, paying $9.8 million a year to fund whale hunts. However, unlike with ivory, domestic demand is flagging. That probably explains why, of the nearly 800 whale meat ads on Rakuten Ichiba as of February, most cost the equivalent of only a few dollars.
While I would normally ignore the actions of a parent company when they are legal, sometime around the 5th or 6th time this story crossed my radar I was struck by the contrast between Amazon and Rakuten.
As my regular readers probably know, Rakuten own Kobo, the Canadian ebook firm, and that leads us to a rather curious situation. Many people in digital publishing love to hate Amazon, often attacking the retail giant for its business practices. I wonder how they will react to the news about Rakuten?
On the one hand, we have a retailer which is viciously competitive, while on the other hand we have a retailer who deals in endangered species.
Okay, Rakuten technically runs a marketplace where other people deal in endangered species, but that point is irrelevant. Amazon not only doesn't deal in this morally repugnant trade, they have even banned any mention of ivory or whale products from their Japanese retail website (so has Google).