For 300,000 to 400,000 yen, pet dealers in Japan will sell you a Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang) -- a nocturnal, tree-climbing primate native to Southeast Asia. An Asian Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinerea) can set you back as much as 700,000 yen. Indian Star Tortoises (Geochelone elegans) run 25,000 to 30,000 yen. And a Hercules stag beetle from Central or South America might go for 50,000 to 60,000 yen.
On the other end of the spectrum, hermit crabs sell in pet shops for as little as 100 to 500 yen each. But their annual turnover is said to exceed three tons, and the majority sold here are smuggled in from abroad.
Writing in Cyzo (November), Mai Endo talks to Tsuyoshi Shirawa, author of the 2007 work "Dobutsu no Nedan" (The Price of Animals, Locomotion Publishing), about the trade in exotic pets that is exploiting loopholes in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as the Washington Convention).
The convention's Appendix I covers giant pandas, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, rhinos and other endangered species, about 900 in all, and bans their international trade for commercial purposes.
The main problem lies in the additional 32,500 species in Appendix II, which are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which some form of strict regulation is desirable.
Most of the small primates, turtles and others being smuggled into Japan follow the same pattern. A catcher snares the animal and sells it to a broker, who takes his cut when he passes it on to a smuggler.
"These are individuals, not businesses," says Shirawa. "Typically they bring them in their carry-on hand baggage."
Once arriving at the airport, they have to get the critters past a customs inspector. Falsifying a customs form or failing to report makes the violator subject to arrest.
"But if you state openly on the customs form, 'I've got an otter,' you won't be arrested," says Shirawa. "You'll be let off with a warning and the animal will be confiscated."
Some smugglers have ways of getting past customs by entering an animal's name on the declaration in an ambiguous way.
"It's almost impossible for customs officials, who are busy checking for contraband like drugs and firearms, to be familiar with the names of all protected species," Shirawa explains.
Violators of Japan's Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora risk imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to 1 million yen. But once the creatures in Appendix II do make it into the country, no restrictions on sales apply. In other words, it's a "home-free" situation for the sellers.
To simplify things, Shirawa thinks ownership of all species named in Appendix I should be prohibited outright without approval from the Environment Ministry.
"As for Appendix II, registration should be required," he says.
Unfortunately there aren't enough officials available to get a handle on the situation. In all of 2008, officials at Narita Airport prosecuted only 341 cases, which, considering the scale of the market, is almost certainly a mere drop in the bucket.© Japan Today