Before he heads off to work, Masakazu Utsunomiya has a unique daily ritual of tender loving care — he bathes and feeds the rare Burmese starred tortoises he keeps in his modest Tokyo apartment and ensures their tanks’ temperature is just right.
Utsunomiya, 29, imports 50 of the tortoises, known as Geochelone Platynota, four times a year from Myanmar to sell as pets. The Japanese representative of a Yangon junta-run breeding project, he legally sells the reptiles and hopes through his efforts to take a bite out of smuggling in what could be considered a lucrative trade, but not one all tortoises survive.
From an animal welfare standpoint, dealing with tortoises can be difficult. But importers, many of them tortoise lovers themselves, say that as long as there is demand and imports, the reptiles should at the very least be treated properly.
Animal photographer Akira Tomimizu believes up to 50,000 people in Japan keep the tortoises as pets, finding their sluggish ways therapeutic.
Burmese starred tortoises are especially popular because they are tougher than most and relatively easy to raise, he said.
For Utsunomiya, who has a regular job, selling the tortoises brings in an additional 4 million yen a year.
“Of course I need the income to support my family and pets,” said Utsunomiya, who also shares his Setagaya Ward apartment with his wife, a dog and two cats. “But the main reason I run this business is not the money, but the belief that I am contributing to (the tortoises’) protection.”
Burmese starred tortoises are listed in Appendix II of CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna in the Washington Convention — which means they can only be exported with a permit from the country of origin.
There are two schools of thought about trade in the rare species. One is that it should be totally banned, the other is that controlled trade can help keep the tortoises from becoming extinct.
During the bubble economy, shady brokers targeted this species of tortoise and began smuggling them to Japan, selling them for up to 500,000 yen each, according to Keisuke Kobayashi, who writes on animal issues.
More and more brokers got into the business because the trade was so lucrative. But because they were mainly motivated by greed, the smuggled tortoises were often mishandled and many died, Kobayashi said. Some were smuggled inside luggage, others in pockets.
According to Traffic East Asia-Japan, the WWF’s wildlife trade monitor, Japan is the world’s biggest importer of tortoises, bringing in 49,338, or 30 percent of the total number traded in 2000.
Then there is the smuggling problem, which, according to the group, is serious in Japan, where at least 1,200 tortoises were seized by customs officials between 1995 and 2004.
Utsunomiya, who has always loved reptiles, learned about the illegal trade in Burmese starred tortoises when he visited Myanmar in 2002.
Concerned about their fate, he accepted when an acquaintance urged him to become the Japan representative of the government breeding farm project.
Kobayashi said the Myanmar regime, concerned in the 1980s about the number of tortoises in the wild that were disappearing, began a campaign to protect them and to urge citizens not to eat them. The effort saw a gradual recovery in the tortoise population. The breeding project — a joint venture with the Myanmarese government — was part of this campaign.
“I was glad to see that the government cared about tortoises,” Utsunomiya said. “By law, half of the animals born at the farm must be released into the wild.”
The joint venture Utsunomiya is part of has a government license, so the tortoises he sells come with proper certification. They are also transported as proper animal cargo.
For first-time buyers, Utsunomiya gives detailed lectures on how to care for the tortoises.
He also sells them for about 70,000 yen apiece, compared with the roughly 200,000 yen at which most smuggled ones now go for, he said.
“By importing them legally and keeping their price low, I hope to help curb smuggling,” he said.
Yasushi Mori, a Kawasaki-based architect who runs a private tortoise research center, said Utsunomiya’s approach is one way to protect the reptiles.
“The sad thing about Japan is that people want to own something just because it’s rare,” he said. “It’s important that the animals are handled properly and the buyers are shown that what they are dealing with is an animal, not an object.”
Mori said the Japanese market for tortoises is estimated at 800 million yen to 900 million yen.
It comes to this amount because some species require expensive equipment, including special heat lamps, cages and floor materials, with just the startup cost reaching 100,000 yen, he said.
“People also at times forget that some tortoises live extremely long and become very large,” Mori said.
When they grow large, they might eat as much as 20,000 yen worth of vegetables per month, and because they can’t fit in a cage, a large part of their environment must be heated. This can send a home’s heating costs up to 70,000 yen per month, he said, noting some irresponsible people decide at that point to get rid of their reptiles.
“People must learn what they are getting into when they get a tortoise as a pet,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because if they are raised with love, they can show a lot of affection.”