Some 60 percent of animal cafes in Japan deal with exotic species restricted by international trade laws, raising fears that their popularity may not just threaten their conservation, but may also heighten the risk of animal-borne diseases, a recent study found.

There were 137 such stores as of 2019, with the popularity of the cafes and demand for the animals potentially triggering overhunting in their native habitats, according to the study by institutions including France's Sorbonne University and non-governmental organization Traffic, which is headquartered in Britain. The cafes allow customers to pet animals, such as owls or hedgehogs, or watch them up close.

Undated photo shows some slow lorises in a cage. (Photo courtesy of Rob Webster/World Wide Fund for Nature)(Kyodo)

"We need to implement measures whereby an animal's biology and behavioral characteristics are given the utmost consideration, and only educational facilities such as zoos are allowed" to keep them, said Yumiko Okamoto of Traffic, established by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to monitor the trade of wild animals and plants.

The study found the cafes exhibited 419 different species and 3,793 individual animals, of which nine species and 53 animals were banned from being traded under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, due to their endangered status.

They included the grey parrot and slow loris, a type of primate.

Another 241 species and 2,498 individuals, including the fennec fox, require permission from the exporting country.

Although the trade of some of the exotic animals may be prohibited, they can be purchased or sold if they were brought in before restrictions were implemented or if those bred in Japan are registered.

Still, the study cautioned that some animals in cafes may have been trafficked from illegal wildlife trade, given no record of their trade in the CITES database and recent seizures of endangered primate species by Japanese customs.

By species, birds made up 62 percent of the total, of which 40 percent were owls. Reptiles and mammals comprised 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively, with amphibians making up 2 percent.

The most common animal was the four-toed hedgehog, with 55 stores across Japan carrying 245 individuals, followed by the barn owl and northern white-faced owl.

A total of 38 stores also sold the animals displayed in the cafe. Many of the owls were available for 200,000 to 600,000 yen ($1,500 to $4,400), while reptiles could be obtained relatively cheaply.

The most expensive animal listed was a secretary bird for 3 million yen.

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