Babies are separated from their mothers when they're too young, likely not yet weaned, and many don't live to adulthood

By Saryn Chorney
January 28, 2019 04:42 PM
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Anyone who’s seen a video or photo of otters “holding hands” (also known as “rafting”) has likely wished they could hold an otter’s paw. Some people take that fantasy a step further and actually seek wild otters out as pets. Many even promote their exotic animal on social media, some as pet influencers, while others do so in hopes of turning a profit. It’s the entirety of this troubling practice that has a team of researchers based in the U.K. concerned about the welfare of the Asian small-clawed otter, among other otter species, which are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN red list.

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According to two new studies published in June of 2018, one by the Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity and another featured in a Traffic report, small-clawed otters and four other Southeast Asian otter species (Eurasian otters, hairy-nosed otters, sea otters and smooth-coated otters) have emerged in the past decade as increasingly popular marks for the exotic pet trade. In a corresponding development, much of this illegal trade appears to be conducted via social media platforms, particularly Facebook. Although habitat loss, human-otter conflict and the trophy market also threaten otters, the pet trade has become one of the biggest threats to wild otters.

PEOPLE reached out to Vincent Nijman, an anthropology professor who’s part of the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group at Oxford Brookes University, as well as PhD candidate and wildlife trade researcher Penthai Siriwat — they are the co-authors of the study “Illegal Pet Trade on Social Media as an Emerging Impediment to the Conservation of Asian Otters Species” — to find out more about the connection between wild otter trafficking and social media. Their study, along with further detailed information presented in the Traffic report, paint a more complete picture of this growing problem.

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Siriwat, who is from Thailand, tells PEOPLE that part of her PhD research at Oxford Brookes University has been devoted to monitoring the wildlife trade on social media, specifically in Thailand, over the past two years. “We noted an increase in otters posted for sale,” she says. “Facebook is an incredibly popular social media platform in Thailand, where both legal and illegal wildlife are sold as pets.”

The doctoral student’s coauthor, Professor Nijman, has been researching the wildlife trade of plants and animals, both legal and illegal for 25 years. Nijman tells PEOPLE his focus has been on how to best regulate or curb this trade, as well as keeping an eye out for emerging trades and “novel” species. Says Nijman, “Otters are … very interesting, ecologically important, beautiful animals, especially when seen in the wild, so it is important to study (potential) impediments to their conservation.”

Nijman and Siriwat’s research revealed that baby otters are posted for sale on Facebook in different groups in the platform’s Thailand marketplace. “Most transactions between seller and buyer [in Thailand don’t] require any face-to-face exchange, as money can be transferred electronically and otters can be sent anywhere in the country using public services such as provincial bus transfers,” Siriwat explains. “Much of the trade is unregulated, and the Thai government currently has very limited resources in cracking down on the illegal trade on Facebook.”

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The Oxford Brookes researchers recorded “160 sale posts from 59 individual sellers in five market groups, with a total of up to 337 individual otters posted for sale.” Siriwat says they found a large price range for baby otters, from around $39 to $203, with an average baby otter costing around $103. “They are playful, pretty, cute, animals of just about the right size – not too big, not too small, if we exclude species like the giant river otter from South America – to be kept as pets.” But, as Nijman reminds us, otters are still wild animals. “They make terrible pets,” he says. “It took [humans] thousands of years to domesticate dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, etc. and it shows: These make excellent pets.”

Before the young otters even make it to pet status, they must survive the trafficking process. “Many of the baby otters sold actually die,” Siriwat tells PEOPLE. “Many sellers even try to market the otters by guaranteeing that the ‘young otter will make it alive.’ ”

“Our guess is that mortality levels, especially for the very young otters in trade is high or very high,” Nijman says.

Generally, even if the babies survive transport, they are a difficult exotic pet to keep. These otters are separated from their mothers when they’re too young, likely not yet weaned, and many don’t live to adulthood. If they do, they’re often loud and require special care; the researchers speculate that like all sorts of other exotic pets, the bigger otters could end up abandoned. As a recent National Geographic article notes, many pet otters are kept on leashes, fed poor diets full of human foods, and even treated like dolls, dressed up in baby clothes: “Keeping otters as pets isn’t good for them — in the wild, they live in family groups of up to 15 in fresh water. In captivity, they’re isolated from other otters and get dunked in the bathtub if they’re lucky.”

Courtesy of TRAFFIC

According to the complementary June 2018 report in Traffic, which looked at otter sales via Facebook in five Southeast Asian countries, “a minimum of 560 advertisements were analyzed over a four-month period January – April 2018, with a minimum of 734 and a maximum of 1189 otters observed for sale.” An additional Traffic report from October 2018 focused on otter trade activity with Japanese customers; here the animals are bought for thousands of dollars – studies show a range from approximately $2,000 to over $14,000 per otter. In Japan, otters have become popular as pets, social media influencers and television stars. Otter cafes (like cat cafes) are also on the rise in Tokyo.

An updated otter census hasn’t been conducted in Thailand, so the full extent of the trade’s impact on wild populations is unknown. However, Siriwat says that “the unprecedented internet trade has opened up otters to a whole new array of potential consumers who buy on first impulse due to [their] cuteness. When they learn that otters require more work than expected, [are] not fit for normal homes (especially in the city) and are not good pets, they release them or leave them at rescues.”

Nijman agrees: “It is another example of people wanting to have the next new thing.”

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While otters aren’t an endangered species yet, their numbers are dwindling as they rise in demand. Most of the trade seems to be domestic at the moment, and technically the animals are protected, but trafficking otters still seems “easily accessible and prevalent.” As Nijman and Siriwat’s study exemplifies, the potential for international trade should not be underestimated. Their research has highlighted inadequacies in enforcement and legislation, which is not “keeping pace with the rapidly shifting nature of the internet in Thailand and throughout the global internet community.”

Currently, otters are not a priority species for law enforcement. From a legal perspective, the researchers say there’s no process in place in Thailand that facilitates cracking down on the internet otter trade. “By the time the legal procedures allow them to track down a seller, most of the time, the transaction has been made. It will require more than just law enforcement to take action to stop this, but also collaboration and committed support from platform operators such as Facebook,” Siriwat tells PEOPLE.

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Indeed, the Traffic study shows that the commercial exploitation of otters is taking place both domestically and internationally, which is in violation of national laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The trafficking of otters from Southeast Asian nations to Japan is of particular concern, as there are various loopholes in laws in to prevent law enforcement from taking action.

For all the above reasons, the situation for otters appears bleak. Law enforcement is difficult to engage, even with iconic species such as tigers, says Nijman. “In the end, a lot of this depends on broad societal support and in most countries, not just in Southeast Asia, [support] is present only at a low level.”