Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten has grabbed headlines in recent months for its big acquisitions ($900 million for messaging platform Viber) and investments ($100 million in Pinterest). Now it’s making news for a different reason: This week, British environmental group the Environmental Investigation Agency, along with the Humane Society International, published a report (PDF) describing Rakuten as “the world’s largest online trader in elephant ivory and whale products.”
The group found thousands of listings and ads for whale meat and ivory on Rakuten Ichiba, the company’s Japanese e-commerce site, which launched in 1997 and is now the largest online marketplace in Japan.
Rakuten has been pushing hard to expand its presence and business holdings around the world. In addition to the Pinterest stake and Viber acquisition, the company owns Buy.com, Play.com, ebook company Kobo and streaming video service Wuaki.tv.
In a statement on the company’s website, CEO Hiroshi Mikitani says, “Since our foundation in 1997 it has been our corporate mission to empower people and society through the internet, while aiming to become the No. 1 Internet services company in the world.”
From EIA’s report:
- “In June 2013, a search for ‘whale meat’ on http://www.rakuten.co.jp yielded 773 whale products for sale, while the broader term ‘whale’ generated over 1,200 food products. Many of these originated from baleen whales, namely fin, sei, minke and Bryde’s whale, which are all protected species under the moratorium on commercial whaling established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1986. These species are also afforded the highest level of protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits international trade. Despite this, a number of companies were selling endangered fin whale imported from Iceland.”
- “In February 2014, searches for ‘ivory’ (象牙) revealed that Rakuten Ichiba carried more than 28,000 ads offering elephant ivory products.24 With so many ivory products advertised for sale, more than any other internet provider analysed by EIA, Rakuten Ichiba plays a significant role in supplying the Japanese demand for elephant ivory.”
Among the ivory products advertised on Rakuten Ichiba were “a large carved tusk selling for US$28,186 (¥2,940,000)” and “‘hard’ ivory products, derived from the endangered forest elephants of Central Africa. Ads offer ‘extremely rare’ hard ivory hankos for sale, which are priced from US$4,000 to US$8,000 (¥409,239-¥818,480) each.”
The EIA notes that Amazon and Google prohibit sales of and advertisements for whale, dolphin and ivory through their Japanese sites and calls on Rakuten to “immediately enact a permanent ban on the sale of all elephant, whale and dolphin products.” The organization lists steps you can take to urge Rakuten to do this.
Rakuten did not return my request for comment.