Passion for traditional medicines, exotic pets, promotes illicit trade

by Stephen Hesse

Some among us seem to have an insatiable desire for novelty, be it living or dead. From rare primates and endangered tortoises for pets, to tiger bones consumed in pursuit of sexual vitality, Japan is the world’s leading consumer of exotic species.

The pet phenomenon has become so widespread it has spawned a nomenclature of its own: Japan is experiencing a petto buumu, and Japanese collectors of unusual species are called mania, though maniacs would be more appropriate.

Dogs and cats are still popular, of course. In 1998 there were 9.9 million dogs and 7.5 million cats in Japan. Nevertheless, affection fades quickly. The same year more than 450,000 cats and dogs were put down at animal pounds across the nation.

Increasingly, however, the desire is to own pets that no one else has, and among “mania,” the more the better. One mania living in Tokyo proudly told TV Asahi that he owns 100 animals. Although several were species illegal to trade under international law, the man said he was confident they were all legal, as surely no pet dealer would sell him an illegal animal.

Tastes in pets vary from the peculiar to the absurd, including Aldabran tortoises, tropical fish and coral, slow lorises, lion tamarins, desert hedgehogs, and various monkeys and other primates.

TRAFFIC-Japan, a group that monitors wildlife trafficking, recently reported that Japan was the world’s top importer of tortoises, birds, live bears, reptile skins and coral in 1996. On primates, Japan came in second, importing 5,300.

While trade in most species is legal, the sheer volume of Japan’s purchases is worrysome. According to TRAFFIC, in 1996 Japan imported 29,051 tortoises, 55 percent of registered world trade, and 136,179 bred and wild birds, more than 40 percent of all birds traded internationally. Illegal imports make these figures even higher.

Japanese demand is taking a substantial bite out of surviving populations of rare and unusual animals worldwide. Not surprisingly, lack of proper care and abandonment have resulted in animals biting back, literally.

Last year, a Tokyo child playing in a storm drain was bitten by a piranha, and this month a man died after being bitten on the neck by a captive Bengal tiger. Though the cat was clearly the victim of human ignorance and abuse, officials poisoned it the same evening. One more down in the countdown to extinction.

“Tigers are so highly endangered that they may soon be extinct in the wild,” according to CITES Standing Committee Chairman Robert Hepworth in Britain. “This tragedy can only be prevented if tiger range states do more to protect habitat and combat poachers, consumer states stamp out the market for tiger parts and derivatives, and rich countries help to fund tiger conservation efforts.”

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, was adopted in 1973 to help protect endangered species of plants and animals that are threatened by international trade. There are 147 member nations, including Japan.

Japan is now the only Asian nation where tiger parts can be sold legally. “We believe the Japanese government recognizes the importance of strengthening Japan’s domestic controls on the sale of tiger parts and derivatives,” says John Sellar, a member of the CITES team. “By cutting back or eliminating demand in this key market, the government will help reduce the incentive for poaching in the range states.”

UNEP reports that the wild tiger population has fallen from 100,000 in the 1900s, to an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 individuals. Tigers are only found in India, Russia, China and Southeast Asia, and several subspecies are thought to be already extinct.

Tiger hunting is now illegal everywhere, according to UNEP, and international trade in tigers and tiger products is completely banned under CITES. Nevertheless, tigers are being bought and sold, live and in pieces. Buyers want pets and skins; and bones, organs and genitals for traditional medicines.

Last year CITES carried out research in 14 tiger range states and consumer nations. The researchers produced a technical report that makes four recommendations, all aimed specifically at Japan: Techniques should be developed to determine the presence of tiger parts in various products; the sale of tiger parts in Japan should be prohibited; enforcement activities for tackling organized smuggling routes should be undertaken; and, scientific studies of the actual effectiveness of tiger parts in traditional medicines should be conducted to aid in education and awareness campaigns.

As the CITES recommendations stress, Japan must take a leading role in ensuring the protection and conservation of the world’s remaining tigers. But tigers are just a few of the numerous species that fall victim to Japanese who crave novelty.

According to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Thailand, for every primate that makes it to market in Bangkok, seven others die. Of the survivors that are shipped on to Japan, legally and illegally, more die in transit.

One couple, arrested on arrival in Japan, had 99 small animals tucked away in their luggage and clothing. They said they bought the animals in a Bangkok market, where vendors offered tips on how to smuggle the animals through customs. Half of the animals they were carrying died.

Despite losses in transit, smuggling is worth it. One smuggler told TV Asahi that the minimum profit is 20 times the overseas price of the animals, and some species can bring 150 to 200 times the price paid, or thousands of dollars.