Home > Life in Japan > Environment
  print button email button

Monday, May 8, 2000

OUR PLANET EARTH

Orangutans smuggled in underwear


You're flying back from a week in Indonesia and the guy next to you seems unusually twitchy. Considering all he's had to drink, he ought to be adequately sedated, but he's just ordered another Scotch.

There's something else too, an unidentifiable, gamy odor that tickles your memory. It's familiar, but . . . Then it hits you: He smells like a zoo, more specifically, the primate house.

That's when the pieces come together. The fidgeting, the smells, the lumpy carry-on luggage and the big bulky jacket. Your neighbor has the scent of a primate because he's traveling with one, maybe several, tucked away in his baggage and stuffed under his jacket. You're seated next to a smuggler of animal exotica.

This is a business that pays. Smugglers can make a minimum profit of 20 times the overseas price, and some species bring 200 times the price paid, or thousands of dollars. In a recent column on exotic pets I mentioned a couple arrested with 99 small animals tucked away in their luggage and clothing. The animals were purchased in a Bangkok market, where vendors explain how to smuggle critters through customs.

The animals, however, pay the highest price. The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Thailand reports that for every primate that makes it to market in Bangkok, seven others die. Of the primates and other species that travel on to Japan, legally and illegally, more die in transit. Half of the couple's stashed animals were dead on arrival.

While this sort of monkey business occurs with disturbing frequency, Japan's media have paid little attention. Last winter, however, one case of illegally imported species made national news. A pet shop in Osaka was found to have orangutans and siamang gibbons for sale, species that are illegal to import because Japan is a party to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Although pet shops in Japan sell all sorts of novel creatures, legal and illegal, with impunity, the orangutans seem to have broken some threshold of absurdity. Private citizens and NGOs reacted angrily, and the crime became a media circus. Even the Diet took a moment to discuss the travail of illegal species imports.

The orangutans have since been returned to Indonesia. According to the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, however, the orangutan's case is important because it "clearly illustrated the defects of the Japanese system for implementing and enforcing the provisions of CITES."

In a report submitted to the CITES Conference of the Parties held in Nairobi last month, JWCS explains how easy it was to smuggle the orangutans into Japan. Such ease illustrates the gaping holes in Japan's enforcement framework, holes that encourage illegal trade, both international and domestic, in endangered species.

Five people were involved in smuggling the orangutans into Japan, the owner and manager of the pet shop and three others, referred to in the report as X,Y and Z. The report states that, at the pet-shop owner's request, X smuggled at least two Javan gibbons in August 1998, and a siamang gibbon and an orangutan a month later. The animals were purchased at a market in Jakarta.

Soon after, Y, who lives on Bali, was recruited. Y bought two orangutans for about $570 each from an animal dealer in Jakarta, and two siamang gibbons for $475 each, and smuggled them into Japan in December 1998 via Kansai International Airport.

Z, a resident of Indonesia, also provided the pet-shop owner with orangutans. He slipped two through Japanese Customs in April 1999.

You're thinking, "These guys must be pretty slick, right? How could anyone sneak an orangutan though customs?" Apparently, all it takes is a bit of chutzpa.

X has not revealed how he smuggled the primates into Japan, but Y shared his methods with JWCS. First, after sedating the orangutans, he went through customs at Denpasar Airport, Bali, holding "one under each arm with a jacket covering them!" Before arriving at Kansai International Airport, "he hid them in the bottom of a big traveling case and put clothes, etc., on top of them."

Admittedly, young orangutans are lanky, light-weight creatures. Still, if people are getting through customs with apes tucked in among their underwear, what else is getting into Japan that is much more dangerous, and inanimate? But it is not even necessary to hide your carry-on orangutan. Just show it to customs officials and say it is something else.

Z put his two orangutans in a wooden box wrapped with cloth, and carried them inside a big traveling case. When he arrived at Kansai and passed through quarantine, he told officials he was carrying two monkeys. Since monkeys are exempt from quarantine, he was sent along to customs with an official, stamped form certifying that his monkeys had cleared quarantine.

At customs he again said the orangutans were monkeys, and several officials used an illustrated book of animals to confirm his claim. They let him pass. These guys could not tell a monkey from an orangutan, using pictures. Is there any wonder Japan has a smuggling problem?

The JWCS report raises obvious concerns: Inspection of people and cargo entering Japan from countries that are home to wild species protected under CITES (e.g., Indonesia) is insufficient; inspection of domestic animal dealers is insufficient; and, assuming Z's statement is truthful, there is no effective system to identify species.

Despite such flagrant shortcomings in Japan's international and domestic trade enforcement, Japanese demands for the "sustainable use" of wildlife, including whales, ivory and bekko (turtle shell), are becoming increasingly shrill. Naively, Japan has yet to accept that consumption of marginal species will not float on the stormy seas of global opinion, until Japan has plugged the leaks in its rickety ship of state.

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@ tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.