Sleazy animal-trade business underpins Japan's ever-popular zoos


What’s more innocent than a family trip to the zoo? It’s fun, it’s educational, it challenges kids to ask questions and parents to answer them. It reminds hyper-urbanized people that there is such a thing as nature out there, calling for our love, our understanding, and maybe above all our protection.

Imagine a child entranced by a polar bear. “Where do polar bears live?” he or she might ask. “What food do they eat? How long do they live?” And so on. A question most unlikely to arise is, “How much does a polar bear – or a lion, or an elephant – cost?” The answer, writes journalist Mamoru Iida in Shukan Shincho (Jan 14), varies according to species and numerous other circumstances, but more often than not we’re talking tens of millions of yen per animal – which robs our subject of some of its innocence, since money on that scale rarely changes hands without unsavory complications.

The central fact of life at zoos today is the increasingly threatened natural habitats beyond the cages. Human encroachment and climate change have taken a devastating toll. There are now 44 polar bears at 23 zoos in Japan, Iida writes, but the polar bear is an endangered species, its dwindling numbers expected to dwindle still further – by 30 to 50% over the next 45 years.

And so, he explains, we get situations like this: In August 2011, animal trader Kenji Shirawa got a call from the Nihondaira Zoo in Shizuoka. A 3-year-old male polar bear named Rossi, acquired from Russia in 2008, was primed for breeding but lacked a partner. Could Shirawa help?

The polar bears already in Japan were unsuitable for one reason or another. Via his worldwide network, Shirawa heard of prolific polar bear breeding going on at a facility called Safari World in Bangkok. At first blush that sounds odd – polar bears breeding in sub-tropical Thailand? In any case, a female named Vanilla had given birth to four cubs, and Safari World was willing – owing in part to local suspicion, and consequent criticism, that behind the successful breeding in such an anomalous climate lay possible animal abuse – to send Vanilla to Nihondaira. Shipping costs would be high, of course, but Shirawa, anticipating a final bill in the neighborhood of 30 million yen, was shocked to be asked for an unprecedented 60 million yen.

He passed the word on to Nihondaira, expecting a flat refusal – but no, the breeding potential was so tempting that the zoo talked city hall’s budget authorities into going ahead, one incidental result being an almost immediate spike in the price of polar bears worldwide.

Many factors go into an animal’s market value, Iida explains – the popularity of the species, the quality of an animal’s bloodline and training and health, the species’ scarcity or abundance, and so on. An African lion can be had for a relatively inexpensive 450,000 yen. An Indian lion, much scarcer, would cost more than 50 times as much – 25 million yen. Priciest of all are gorillas – 120 million yen, on average, per creature.

Animals generally speaking end up in zoos via two routes, Iida’s investigation shows. Vanilla’s arrival at Nihondaira is typical of one. The other involves traders dealing personally with local hunters or “catchers,” who know just what they can get away with under the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of World Fauna and Flora – otherwise known as the Washington Convention. The “catchers” are not above bribing officials to relax strict enforcement of the Convention’s strict protection measures, Iida hears from his sources.

That, then, Shukan Shincho seems to be saying, is the dark side of one of the great, seemingly blameless family pleasures – a trip with the kids to the local zoo to see the animals.

© Japan Today

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As long as it looks cute or scary I don't suppose the tribulations of the animals involved would trouble the average zoo-goer in Japan. And the conspiracy of silence in most of the media about treatment of animals in zoos or anywhere else betrays a real dearth of empathy with their predicament.

And what is sub-tropical about Bangkok? It is firmly tropical.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Where do they find these sleazy animals anyway?

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Very interesting piece!

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Great reporting, Shukan Shincho!

Not surprised at the city hall's profligacy, money's free for them, after all.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

These creatures live in cages so people can have some "entertainment". Zoos are one of the many ways humans abuse animals.

2 ( +6 / -3 )

Authorities should close zoos down unless they can provide some reasonable semblance of the animals' natural habitats.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I've read this article several times and cannot see any support whatsoever for what the headline claims. Precisely where in the article is the evidence for a sleazy animal trade supporting Japanese zoos? If anything, it looks to me like the Shizuoka example was completely above board.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Failed to find the "sleazy" part. Seems like fairly legit business staying within the set boundaries.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Priciest of all are gorillas – 120 million yen, on average, per creature."


0 ( +0 / -0 )

Inokashira 'zoo', or rather Inokashira animals mental asylum is one of the saddest places i've been to.

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A lot of people think of zoos as educational institutions. But at the end of the day it's a business. Zoo-owners don't care if children are learning a lot about their animals. They care about how much money they can get out of the kid's parents and schools. It's not surprising that zoos have shady business practices.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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