Japan’s continued obsession with otters has left wildlife experts concerned about the future of the species.
The overwhelming demand from Japanese customers who seek the exotic animals as pets fuel illegal otter smuggling in Asia, Inverse reports. TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organization which monitors the illegal trade of wildlife, published a report last month revealing how the activity poses the most significant threat to otter populations, especially in Indonesia and Thailand. According to the report, between 2015 and 2017, 59 otters have been intercepted by authorities.
Most of the illegally traded otters are shipped to Japan, where the animals become pets at home or attractions in otter cafes. In fact, 32 out of the 35 otters seized by authorities in Thailand, were on their way to Japan.
Japan Times reported that smuggling otters to Japan may be illegal but once the animals are already inside the country, people can market them freely.
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“In February 2018, at least 14 groups were observed specifically dedicated to the keeping of otters with a combined number of 19,514 members,” the report noted. “While few otters were observed for sale during the market surveys, traders expressed a willingness to acquire otters for the right price.”
Researchers from TRAFFIC Southeast Asia based their reports on the figures from the smuggling cases and online data retrieved they from monitoring sellers’ open social media advertising.
“The primary threat to otters in Southeast Asia from the illegal wildlife trade would appear to be exploitation for the pet industry, evident through the seizure and online data analysis which revealed the relatively high demand for live otters, a large proportion of which were juveniles,” wrote TRAFFIC Southeast Asia program manager Lalita Gomez and consultant Jamie Bouhuys.
The pet trade reportedly worsens the declining population of otters which are already suffering due to other human activity such as fishing, farming, and hunting.
The four otter species, which are native to Southeast Asia, are also listed in the two most restrictive categories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Appendix I and Appendix II. Such categories indicate that the species are not permitted to be traded under the international agreement.
Aside from bringing harm to the otters by removing them from their natural habitat and forcing them to live among humans as pets, people who own otters are also subjected to certain challenges.
Experts have cited the enormous expense an owner spends for food as the otter grows bigger as well as the considerable size and strength the animal gains as an adult sometimes leads humans to kill their pet out of fear.