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Tortoiseshell ban threatens Japanese tradition

Japanese manufacturers say they are running out of the authentic tortoiseshell called "bekko" used to make art and crafts  

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- An international treaty banning the sale of hawksbill turtle shells is designed to protect the ocean animals, but it also may render an ancient tradition in Japan extinct.

Tortoiseshell has been a precious material in Japan for a thousand years. Richly patterned and polished, it is crafted into brooches and necklaces, combs, hairpins, frames for eyeglasses and delicate works of art.

"Tortoiseshell is impossible to replace," said craftsman Isamu Nomura, a craftsman cutting and polishing in the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo. "Especially for anything worn close to the skin. There's no substitute."


The problem is that authentic tortoiseshell, what the Japanese call "bekko," comes from only one source, the hawksbill turtle. The animal is found in many tropical oceans but many experts consider it endangered.

"There's been more than an 80 percent decline in hawksbill populations in all ocean basins in dozens of countries," said Anne Meylan of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, a leading opponent of re-opening international trade in hawksbill products.

That is why international trade in hawksbill turtle products has been banned under the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species. But Japan's centuries-old bekko industry could soon be history as a result of the ban.

Most craftsmen in bekko workshops report they have enough tortoiseshell stock to last about three or four more years. After that, they say, they will be out of business.

"Having no raw materials is just like a death penalty. It's like a farmer without crops or a fisherman without nets," said Nobuhiko Oka, president of Japan's Bekko Association, which represents most of the remaining bekko dealers and craftsmen in the country.

Some environmentalists consider the hawksbill turtle to be endangered  

"We've lost so many members over the past 10 years. If we lose more, we'll be extinct," he said.

With bekko stocks running out and workers aging, some manufacturers have gone bankrupt. Others have committed suicide.

Government officials in Japan said they hope to win approval under the international convention to import a limited amount of tortoiseshell every year.

"We are hoping to have a resumption of tortoiseshell imports based on the idea of sustainable use of wildlife. We'll have very strict control of its trade inside Japan, and also controls on imports at the border," said Masataka Minamisawa, deputy director in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

"There will be no possibility for illegally obtained tortoiseshell to be imported into Japan," he said.

Government officials said some hawksbill populations are not endangered and that sustainable harvesting of turtles in selected areas will actually encourage people to protect them.

But at last year's conference under the convention in Nairobi, a Cuban proposal to sell 6 tons of tortoiseshell to Japan was rejected. Conservationists had warned only a complete moratorium on tortoiseshell trade would allow hawksbills to recover worldwide.

Before imports were stopped, Japanese dealers bought some 30 tons of tortoiseshell every year. Now they say they need only 4 tons a year, about 3,000 turtles, to keep their ancient craft alive.

There are many willing sellers in Cuba, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia. But without approval under the convention, there can be no trade and the Japanese bekko industry is running out of time.

Half of world's turtles face extinction, scientists say
August 27, 1999
Farmers, scientists rally behind endangered turtle
July 8, 1999

Caribbean Conservation Corporation
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species: Its Past and Future

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