The Central Asian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii), listed by CITES in 2007 as being the second-most imported tortoise to Japan. Via Wikipedia
While Japan isn't the world's worst offender for wildlife trafficking, it does have a very long history of importing wildlife and plant products, and was one of the first countries to see a boom in illegal wildlife products being sold in online auctions. With that in mind, here is some good news: Japan's Environment Ministry has announced it will raise the maximum fines for corporate smuggling of endangered species from ¥1 million to ¥100 million.
That hundredfold increase means companies caught trading in protected species will jump from a paltry $10,000 up to a cool million dollars. The penalty for individuals is much less, raised from ¥1 million or a year in prison to ¥5 million or five years in prison.
It's a good step for Japan, which has been showing signs lately of relenting on its historic resistance towards wildlife protections. The old fines weren't exactly enormous when compared to the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars that high-ticket items like rhino horn and ivory are worth. Quintupling individual penalties is a good start, and the new structure does offer up a lot of monetary pain for any companies trading in banned items like reptiles and hardwoods.
That's important because the institutional trade of banned items likely has a more negative impact on biodiversity overall than the criminals trading in specific, high-dollar items like horn or ivory. As a 2010 TRAFFIC report (PDF) on the wildlife trade in Japan noted, Japan has huge trades in all kinds of wild products, from illegal harvesting of coral, to trade in rare plants, hardwoods, and exotic pets.
Those aspects of the illegal wildlife trade tend to get less attention than rhinos, elephants, or tigers (I'm guilty, too), but overall they represent an enormous amount of protected flora and fauna that's illegally exchanging hands.
Still, the trend towards protection in Japan is positive. The fine change comes as an update to the country's endangered species law, which was only instituted in 1992. (The United States' Endangered Species Act dates back to 1973.) Meanwhile, at the most recent CITES conference, Japan supported extending protections to a number of shark species, which was a reversal of the country's historical resistance to CITES expansion and general distaste for any sort of ocean-based regulations. (Whale fishing, anyone?)
Still, any time a country institutes hundredfold increases in fines for wildlife trafficking, it's worth noting. Hopefully Japan's trend towards getting serious about taking care of endangered species will continue.