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December 15, 1999
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Japan's illegal immigrants, of the furred variety

TOKYO - Busy lifestyles and cramped apartments make it difficult for most Japanese to keep ordinary pets, prompting many to go for smaller, quieter animals to keep them company.

But often, this penchant for exotic animals fuels the importation of wild animals and banned creatures, ranging from tortoises to threatened orangutans. Worse, many owners soon tire of the novelty or are unable to care for them, and eventually abandon the animals.

Japan has experienced a boom in the exotic pet business, whose value has risen 30 percent to $7.8 billion, from five years ago. In some cases, collectors pay huge amounts to get hold of strange animals, such as a businessman who bought a giant stag beetle for 95,240 US dollars in August this year.

Recognizing the problems that this interest in exotic pets bring about, the Japanese Parliament or Diet passed on December 9 the first major amendment to its animal protection law in 26 years, one which enforces harsher penalties for abusers of animals.

Fusako Nogami, head of the non- governmental organization Alive, lauded the legislation that amends the Protection and Keeping of Animals Law, especially the inclusion in its scope of wild animals, a species that are been increasingly bought as exotic pets in Japan. ''The new law marks a major landmark in our battle to make Japan a safer place for animals. But there is still a long way to go before animal rights are respected,'' said Nogami.

Nogami explained that a major disappointment has been the absence of a law, already enacted in most western countries, that enables the government to withdraw the operating licenses of pet shops or breeders caught abusing animals: ''this is an absolute must if cruelty to animals is to be stopped, for the punishment would be devastating to businesses.''

The amendments to the law increase penalties from the old rate of 30,000 yen ($285) to 300,000 yen ($2,857) for abusing or abandoning pets. People injuring their animals could face up to one year's imprisonment and a one million yen ($9,523) penalty.

Statistics released by Alive reveal that Japan is the world's biggest market for wild birds, and rare breeds of tortoises protected under the Convention XX International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The bigest suppliers are countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America. In 1996, the Japanese market for illegal importation of tortoises captured 55 percent of the total world figure, and 42 percent that of the total for wild birds. But even this figure may not give a complete picture, because they only represent animals that have been caught or their shipments apprehended, said Hisako Kiyono of the World Wildlife Fund, Japan. The actual number could be double, or even more, she points out.

The reptile market, including beautiful snakes and iguanas, is also growing in Japan. According to reports from pet shops, around 80,000 people own similar creatures, with some of rarer species selling for 300,000 yen each.

The Indonesian embassy also reported recently that four orangutans smuggled into the country in December last year will soon be returned to their home, in the jungles of Kalimantan in eastern Indonesia. The animals were bought by a pet owner who has been arrested on suspicion of violating the species preservation law.

Activists point out that another reason behind the government's enactment of stricter laws on animal ownership and the pet industry is an outbreak of diseases carried by non- native animals, as well as threats to Japan's natural species that such imports may pose.

In November, the Health and Welfare Ministry recommended a total ban on monkeys from Africa to avoid the Ebola virus and said it will restrict the number coming in from Asian countries to avoid other infections. Japan imports monkeys mostly for laboratory tests, with the rest sold as pets. China, the Philippines and Vietnam are the biggest exporters of the animals.

Likewise, the fate of abandoned exotic animals has stoked discussion. In September, the government debated a series of cases that involved people abandoning reptiles that they had owned as pets.

The Environment Agency has also found that imported animals may pose a threat to Japan's ecosystem. The black bass, from North America, is reported to have inundated parts of Japanese rivers, making up 99 percent of the fish population in some areas, researchers say.

Activists say the recent amendments to the law are not only about animal rights, but are closely linked to larger issues such as the preservation of the ecosystem and Japan's contribution to efforts to protect biodiversity in countries where some of the exotic animals come from.

''Taking orangutans out of Indonesian forests, for example, is not only against the rights of animals but also upsets the natural forest management systems, which is an added cause for banning these imports altogether,'' explained Nogami.

Still, activists concede that this task will not be easy because of low awareness among the Japanese of these issues, and because companies, such as those in the pet industry, usually put business before animal rights or conservation concerns.

(Inter Press Service)

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