TOKYO -- The Japan branch of a wildlife protection nongovernmental organization (NGO) has revealed that in a two-year period beginning 2016, at least 39 smuggled otters, the majority of which were on the endangered species list, have been confiscated by authorities.
A representative for Traffic, the NGO that did the research, said, "There's a possibility that organized smuggling is being carried out to target demand (for otters) in Japan, where it is high even from an international perspective." Most of the discovered animals were small-clawed otters, a species recognized as vulnerable to extinction under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Traffic calculated the figures by looking at the customs announcements on confiscated goods and other information. They found there were two smuggling consignments discovered in 2016 and three in 2017, all coming from Thailand. The number of otters in the 2016 cases came to seven, but in 2017 it rocketed to 32 animals. "When we looked at photographs of the confiscations, it was presumed that many of them were small-clawed otters, which are relatively easy to take care of," Traffic said.
Small-clawed otters are among the most diminutive otter species, reaching a length of around 50 centimeters. They are native to Southeast Asia, in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as further afield in southern China and India.
Under the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), known as the Washington Convention, it is a fundamental rule that animals cannot be exported without official written permission from the country in which their habitat is based. Thai law prohibits the export of animals for business purposes.
But in Japan, the number of pet lovers and "animal cafes" has increased dramatically. It is thought that hundreds of small-clawed otters are being reared in the country. Traffic said "Of the smuggled otter deliveries from Southeast Asia confiscated in 2017, over two-thirds were headed to Japan."
There are said to be 10 animal cafes in Japan selling the chance to get up close with small-clawed otters, with 15 of the animals in one establishment alone near to Ikebukuro Station, Toshima Ward, Tokyo. At the cafe, most of the animals are separated into their own small cages, and customers can pay to feed them. Those used to human contact can also be taken out and held. An hour with an otter comes to 2,600 yen. It's not cheap, but on weekdays the cafe sees around 50 to 60 customers a day, with numbers exceeding 200 on weekends and holidays.
According to the cafe's manager, its otters come from an organization in East Java Province, Indonesia. He explained, "I choose from the small-clawed otters poached or taken into custody over there, and they export them to me. To keep their operation going, I send them monthly funds of around 1 million yen (around $9,070). To get permissions (for the otters) you need a good relationship with the other party. I'm the only business getting them from Indonesia through the proper channels."
The cafe also sells them as pets. "One otter sells for 1.2 million yen. I've sold more than 10 of them already. Every month we get about five enquiries to buy them," said the cafe's manager.
The Mainichi Shimbun visited a different pet store in the Kanto region, east Japan, to find out about their small-clawed otters prices. When asked about several otters in a cage near the entrance, the shop assistant replied, "1.2 million yen, plus tax. But they're already reserved."
In response to enquiries about their supply chain, he says, "We sell animals we've bred here. We've got customer orders for more than 10 of them, so if you order one now you'd only be able to buy it after three years. Supply isn't catching up with demand."
Receiving otters from smugglers abroad is illegal in Japan under the Act on Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But the law doesn't apply to the breeding and sale of their offspring after they've been obtained. Many small-clawed otters are distributed as "bred in Japan," with no further elaboration as to how their parents entered the country. But according to data from the Washington Convention on animal trading between 2000 and 2016, a total of 74 live small-clawed otters were imported to Japan for business purposes.
Part of the problem is that channels for trading these animals here are unclear. Ryoko Nishino, program officer at Traffic, points to a lack of clarity, "Illegally exported animals are being traded in a way that makes them indistinguishable from legally exported ones." She claimed that some traders dealing with zoos and others privately admit trafficking could be going on, with one trader confiding, "There's an unspoken understanding in the business not to say where the animals came from."
But she also has a message for the public, too. "Demand from people who want to own the otters as pets, or stroke and play with them at cafes, is what keeps smuggling alive."
(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Takeyuki Sato and Suzuko Araki, Science & Environment News Department)