Online pet trade in Southeast Asia poses a major new threat to otters

Poaching of otters has emerged as a major new threat to the survival of Asia’s otter species.

Poaching of otters, especially juveniles, for the online pet trade is so widespread in Southeast Asia that it has emerged as a major new threat to the survival of Asia’s otter species.

A report from the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC and the IUCN Otter Specialist Group released today details the results of a two-year investigation that uncovered hundreds of otters for sale on Facebook, commercial trade portals, and other online platforms. Sales of juvenile otters were especially prominent: over 70 percent of the animals found for sale online were under one year old, according to the report.

There are four otter species that call Southeast Asia home: the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra), the Hairy-nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana), the Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinereus), and the Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata). “While information on the prevalence of all four species in this region is sparse, it is generally considered that populations are in decline due to the increasing loss of suitable habitat, the impact of pesticides on their wetland biomes and human-otter conflicts caused by perceived or actual threat to local and commercial fisheries,” according to the report.

The poaching of otters for online trade can now be added to that list of significant threats. In fact, the report states that the online pet trade is now “the most pressing threat to the survival of otters.” The animals are in demand as pets as well as for their fur and for their parts that are used in traditional medicinal practices.

Between August 2015 and December 2017, investigators with TRAFFIC and the IUCN Otter Specialist Group spent just one hour a week monitoring online otters sales in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. In that time, they discovered at least 560 advertisements by wildlife traders who were offering somewhere between 734 and 1,189 otters for sale. The majority of those otters on offer — more than 700 — were for sale in Indonesia, while just over 200 were in Thailand. The Philippines was the only country where the investigation did not find any otters being advertised for sale online.

“The fact that so many otters can be so easily acquired and offered for sale to thousands at the click of a button and subjected to little or no regulation, is a serious problem,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, Acting Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.

The researchers behind the report also examined records of 13 different seizures of otters in the region that occurred between August 2015 and December 2017, in which a total of 59 live otters were confiscated by authorities. Indonesia and Thailand were again the main culprits, followed by Malaysia and Vietnam.

But while Indonesia and Thailand were thus identified as the chief source and demand countries for otters in Southeast Asia, both countries are also apparently trafficking hubs for otters that are exported to Japan: According to the report, seizure records show that Japan was the destination for at least 32 live Small-clawed Otters smuggled out of Thailand.

The report identified a lack of strong national legislation to protect these species in many of their range countries as a major reason the illegal exploitation of otters has been able to flourish online. “Weak national laws hinder enforcement action and widespread trade in otters online throws the survival of remaining wild populations in Southeast Asia into question,” Krishnasamy said.

The Small-clawed Otter is especially vulnerable to the online pet trade, as at least 700 individual animals were observed for sale during the online survey period, more than any other species. The Small-clawed Otter is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to threats like habitat loss and poaching. The IUCN reports that the species’ population in Southeast Asia has declined by more than 30 percent over the past three decades, and continues to decline today.

Nicole Duplaix, chair of the IUCN-SSC Otter Specialist Group, said she hopes that the report will serve as a wake up call for authorities to rein in the uncontrolled trade of juvenile otters.

“The online commerce of very young otter cubs for the pet trade adds a new dimension of concern,” Duplaix said in a statement. “The appeal of these cute animals is undeniable, but otter cubs are difficult to hand rear and susceptible to the same diseases as cats and dogs.”

The report urges Southeast Asian governments to adopt tougher laws that protect all four Asian otter species from exploitation and punish online wildlife crime, and recommends that governments work with conservation NGOs to educate consumers about threats to otters’ survival in order to reduce demand for the animals as pets.

Banner image: A Small-clawed Otter pup for sale in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in November 2017. © Gomez.L/TRAFFIC.

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