The international trade of endangered otters has been banned as their Instagram popularity is thought to be responsible for an increase in poaching.
The smooth-coated otter is found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and several other Asian countries while the Asian small-clawed otter is native to South and Southeast Asia, however both are often spotted on social media feeds across the globe.
Owners of the semi-aquatic creatures regularly show off their unusual pets, with viral videos and adorable photos showing otters being walked on leads, playing with toys and curling up to humans. A number of otter cafes have also opened in Japan, allowing visitors to interact with the animals.
However, it’s feared the social media trend has resulted in more otters being poached from the wild in order to meet pet trade demands.
Nicole Duplaix, who co-chairs the Otter Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told AFP the illegal trade in otters has ‘suddenly increased exponentially’.
The IUCN Red List labels both otters as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction, with their population decreasing in the wild. According to France24, their numbers in the wild have plummeted by at least 30 per cent in the past 30 years.
Otters have become a victim of #SocialMedia , pushing them as "cute pets". 🐾💻📱While they are cute, they are not at all suitable pets. We are here at @CITESCoP18 to get this cruel business closed. @facebook @Twitter @instagram @markzuckkchs16 #NotAPet #WildlifeCrime #Poaching pic.twitter.com/WNfOityekj
— Pro Wildlife (@prowildlife) August 19, 2019
In an attempt to help save the creatures, world leaders at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to ban the trade.
The vote for the smooth-skinned otter passed on Sunday, while the vote for the Asian small-clawed otter passed on Monday (August 26).
Ecologists say the ban is vital in order to ensure the survival of the species.
#Otters may be cute but it comes at a cost. Small-clawed otters have become increasingly common in the illegal wildlife trade for pets & as attractions in cafes. Countries voted to end the international commercial trade of this species today! #CITESCoP18 #BREAKING PC:AtulBorker pic.twitter.com/N4qjeKaMCF
— HSI/India (@IndiaHSI) August 26, 2019
Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at Humane Society International, commented on the change in policy for the Asian small-clawed otter, saying:
A wide variety of threats is adversely affecting the Asian small-clawed otter in the wild, such as habitat loss, pollution, and the fur trade, but increasingly it is persecution for the pet trade that is proving its downfall.
This is the smallest and arguably the ‘cutest’ of all the otter species, and interest in them, fanned by photos and film on social media, means that a market for live pet animals has been swiftly growing in Asia.
With so much stacked against these otters, who are now classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, we are delighted that they will now benefit from this very welcome, precautionary agreement to give them the highest protection at CITES.
— DanielaNRDC (@DanielaNrdc) August 17, 2019
The smooth-coated otter and the Asian small-clawed otter were previously listed as threatened under CITES Appendix II, however they will now be moved to Appendix I.
Appendix I of CITES lists species threatened with extinction and prohibits commercial trade in them internationally. Simmons explained the new listing ‘effectively bans international trade for commercial purposes and removes one of the key threats that [otters] face.’
Excellent news for the vulnerable smooth-coated otter:
The species, threatened by the pet trade & the demand for their pelts, has just been uplisted to @CITES Appendix I affording them greater protections from international trade.#CITES #CITESCoP18 pic.twitter.com/bSoYHrGz2r
— ifaw (@action4ifaw) August 25, 2019
Wildlife expert Sumanth Bindumadhav said placing the otters in Appendix I will send the necessary message to the public, ‘in particular to online and social media audiences, that trade in them is detrimental to their welfare and survival’.
While both votes passed with an overwhelming majority, the decision needs to be ratified at the plenary session of the CITES conference later this week.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.