Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Gang links suspected in Japan nationals' attempts to smuggle otters from Thailand

A smooth-coated otter, a popular kind of otter in Japan, is seen in an "animal cafe" in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on May 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Igarashi) (Mainichi/ Kazuhiro Igarashi)

BANGKOK -- Thai and Japanese police have arrested a string of Japanese nationals attempting to smuggle animals from Thailand to Japan. The Embassy of Japan here revealed that since 2016 there have been six cases resulting in eight arrests at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport alone. Some of the accused have since been convicted and incarcerated.

Many of the suspects are believed to visit markets in Bangkok, and illicitly buy animals popular in Japan such as the Asian small-clawed otter.

The Mainichi Shimbun went to the Thai capital's Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is popular with locals and foreign tourists alike. Everything from souvenirs to pets are on sale, and an animal market is held on weekdays at an adjoining site.

When asked about Asian small-clawed otters, people working at various stalls and shops all denied they had any, while recommending going further into the market to a business that did. Finally a man at a pet shop deep in the complex told me to wait a moment while they called someone over. After a while a woman came in from outside.

Animals are seen for sale in a market in Bangkok, on June 16, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinichi Nishiwaki)

She said, "We're breeding baby Asian small-clawed otters at another location. Right now I only have one. If you want it, I can bring it for 8,000 Baht," or about 28,000 yen. She also said she'd had other orders from Japanese people.

Asian small-clawed otters and smooth-coated otters are mainly found in Southeast Asia, but because they are in danger of extinction, trading the animals without permission is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Convention. The Thai government does not recognize unauthorized trading of the animals either, suggesting that those engaged in the practice are aware it is illegal.

Many kinds of animals are sold at the market, including chicks, large catfish, tortoises and snakes that look like worms. In May, Chiba Prefectural Police arrested a man trying to bring in animals to Japan that he had allegedly purchased at the market including a small monkey. The primate appeared to be a new species.

Bangkok is one of the world's major transit centers. According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the markets in the city are a hub for international illegal animal trading.

However, some believe the markets are a cover for the true power behind these animal businesses. Many of the people transporting the animals who have been exposed by police largely appear to be ordinary citizens, but investigations have not managed to turn up much detail beyond that. A police source in Japan said, "If the accused maintain that they bought the animals themselves from these markets, it ends up functioning as the explanation for their activities."

According to Thai police and other sources, a Japanese woman who was arrested in 2017 for attempting to take 10 Asian-small clawed otters out of the country testified that she bought the animals because she felt sorry for them being on sale in the market, and that she intended to keep them herself.

Animals appearing to be meerkats are seen for sale in a market in Bangkok on June 16, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinichi Nishiwaki)

But it later emerged that the woman was deep in debt to businesses in a nighttime entertainment district. A source in connection to police said, "Organized crime syndicates and other similar groups appear involved in the illegal animal trade from Thailand."

At the Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in August, it was decided that trading of Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters would be subject to stricter conditions, with the commercial sale of the animals set to be banned in principle.

After the decision, the Mainichi Shimbun went back to the same market, but couldn't find the woman who had offered to sell one of the otters. At a separate shop, a man said, "I know where they breed the animals. If you're interested, I'll get in touch with them."

Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, who is involved in animal protection initiatives, said, "There are still very few warning signs up at these markets. More needs to be done to make people understand that smuggling these animals is a crime."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Nishiwaki, Bangkok Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media