Photo/IllutrationA signboard calling for donations to preserve the environment and maintain trails and facilities in the mountains in Kagoshima’s Yakushima island, which is designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site (Tsuyoshi Takeda)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

YAKUSHIMA, Kagoshima Prefecture--At least 29 million yen ($262,158) in donations collected for preserving the natural environment at a World Heritage site here was reportedly embezzled and gambled away by a staff member of the fund-raising council.

The Yakushima Mountain Environmental Management Council, which was set up by the town, the prefecture, the government and other entities, on Feb. 25 announced the suspected embezzlement committed by a former staffer in his 40s.

The man admitted to pocketing the funds, saying he spent part of the money on "playing pachinko and online horse racing.” The council fired the employee as of Feb. 18 and plans to lodge a criminal complaint against him on suspicion of committing embezzlement in the course of business.

Yakushima Mayor Koji Araki, who heads the council, and town officials bowed deeply during a news conference in the town office on Feb. 25. They apologized for the misconduct by the former staff member, who started to work at the council in 2010 and has been in charge of accounts by himself.

The donations were sought to conserve the natural environment of the mountains in Yakushima island, which is designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and also to ensure safety by maintaining the trails and facilities in the mountains.

The council asks for donations from visitors who enter Mount Okudake, home to the famed 7,200-year-old Jomon-sugi cedar, a symbol of Yakushima island, and Mount Miyanouradake, the highest peak in Yakushima and the Kyushu region.

Under the fund-raising program, a minimal donation of 1,000 yen per person for a day and minimal donation of 2,000 yen per person for more than one day are requested on a voluntary basis. The donations are managed in the council’s bank account and then transferred to the town.

However, in-house inspections conducted earlier this month found that a total of 29 million yen was not transferred to the town in and after July.

The suspected embezzler appears to have repeatedly misappropriated donations in the past as well as proceeds from the sale of bus tickets sold by the council.

The town’s sloppiness in overseeing its bank account registers over a period of time partly resulted in the loss. The council is expected to determine the total amount and seek a criminal complaint against the former staffer in question.

The fund-raising program was introduced in 2017 to clean and remove urine and feces accumulated in toilets in mountain cottages. To date, 80 percent of climbers to the mountains have cooperated with the project.

About 54.30 million yen was donated from April to December 2018.