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

posted on January 17, 2016

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.

source by japantoday
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