The situation is worse than I imagined. In my last column (May 8), I wrote about smugglers carrying live primates into Japan in their luggage. Days after that column appeared, I was put in touch with an exotic pet importer who confirmed that government oversight of trade in animals is abysmal.
As a professional importer who loves animals, Mr. Tanaka (not his real name) is concerned that smugglers and pet shops operating illegally are giving his profession a bad name, and putting customers and animals at risk. He is concerned that people are buying animals that are caught in the wild, unhealthy and not neutered. Unaware and unprepared, buyers are getting far more than they bargained for, including illegal animals, disease and hormonal time bombs set to go off at maturity.
International trade in exotic species is controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Highly endangered species are listed in Appendix I of CITES, and these cannot be traded, though research facilities, zoos and others can secure special permits to import such species.
Less endangered animals, listed in Appendix II, are commonly traded with a CITES permit -- permits that are easy to get, legally or illegally. Tanaka is angry that serious defects in Japan's implementation and enforcement of CITES threaten the future of his business.
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
What is the legal situation in Japan?
"The present laws really don't mean a thing. People who don't want to follow them don't, even now that the law has been tightened. There are two reasons for this. First, there is little enforcement. Second, the people who enforce the laws have no knowledge of what they're doing. As you mentioned in your last column, customs officials can't tell the difference between a monkey and an orangutan.
"People who have been breaking the law will continue. People who don't are going to follow the new and tighter requirements that make business more difficult, and more expensive. This in turn makes the black-market animals even cheaper, because our legitimate animals now cost more, and theirs cost the same or less."
What is required to get an animal through customs legally?
"Appendix II animals are easy. You just have to have proof that they were captive bred, or that they were legally exported from the country they came from. You need a health certificate, an export permit and a CITES permit, all from the country of export, to clear customs and get a CITES import permit."
How many legitimate exotic pet importers are there in Japan?
"Very few. Most will break the law if they can get away with it."
What is the status of the animals you bring in and how are you different from the guys who are smuggling?
"As a business person, most people want to buy cheap and sell high. I don't want to buy cheap pets, because cheap pets don't live very long. They hurt the industry in general and our own future.
"Personally I like nice pets that have been bred well with good food, vitamins and care, animals that are responsive and don't hate humans, and don't mind living with us. We buy all our animals from legitimate dealers who have good animals and provide the proper paperwork."
What is your opinion of customs procedures and officials in Japan?
"If you bring animals in through Narita, you are basically legitimate because Narita is straight. They're ignorant, but they're straight. Osaka is completely different. It's the Wild West, and the Mob rules. The people in Kansai are on the take. Where else can you get an orangutan through customs and claim it's a monkey?
"All customs people are ignorant, because none of them are specialized, but Osaka is dirty. If you want to bring in Godzilla or King Kong, you bring him in through Osaka airport. All the good stuff comes in through Osaka."
(Note: Surprised by Tanaka's vehement opinions -- I reminded him several times I would quote him -- I spoke with another importer. He confirmed that Tanaka's perceptions are commonly shared among those who deal with customs officials on a regular basis.)
Are there legitimate pet shops in Japan?
"Yes. The good ones don't want to do black-market business, they don't want to deal with unauthorized imports. But they're a small percentage."
Are you familiar with the shop in Osaka that had orangutans for sale?
"They advertised in an industry magazine, 'We have orangutans for sale'! It was like they had a puppy for sale, like it was nothing at all. You can't sell orangutans, they're CITES I! They might as well have had a human child for sale. But enforcement officials are not even reading trade magazines.
"Recently I was in Osaka with some friends and we came across the shop, WanWan. My first surprise was that they're still in business after being caught with the orangutans. Second was the conditions in the shop. They had crab-eating monkeys jammed in a cage, crapping all over each other; full-grown dogs squeezed in together that will obviously never be sold. They had a serval [African wild cat, Leptailurus serval], but none of the required permits posted. It was absurd they were even in business, much less under those conditions."
What can the government do to improve the situation?
"For customs, they need to hire people who know animals, because you can't train someone who doesn't care. This means you have to hire people who graduate with some specialization related to animals, such as biology or wildlife studies. But even before that, the top people have to start caring enough to make an environment that is supportive, so customs officials can do their jobs."
As for Tanaka's imports, he does not bring in any animals that he cannot be responsible for after they are sold, including poisonous snakes and animals that can kill humans.
"There's no point," he said. "They're not pets, and we're selling pets."
For the record, Tanaka offers one handy rule of thumb for those have trouble telling the difference between a monkey and an orangutan: If it has a tail, it's a monkey. Apes don't have tails.
Then again, stick on a tail and your orangutan might just sail through customs.