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Rising demand for cute selfies puts wild otters at risk

China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-23 09:42

A promotional signboard for a pet cafe that features otters is displayed in the Harajuku district in Tokyo on Wednesday. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP

GENEVA - Social media users are fueling a burgeoning appetite for acquiring otters and other endangered animals as pets, conservationists say, warning the trend could push species toward extinction.

Popular Instagrammers who post selfies with their pet otters may simply be seeking to warm the hearts of their up to hundreds of thousands of followers, but animal protection groups say the trend is posing an existential threat to the silky mammal.

"The illegal trade in otters has suddenly increased exponentially," said Nicole Duplaix, who co-chairs the Otter Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

All Asian otter species have long been listed as vulnerable or endangered after facing decades of shrinking habitats and illegal trade in their pelts.

But conservationists say the recent surge in social media hype around the creatures has sparked such a frenzied demand for baby otters in Asian countries, Japan in particular, that it could drive entire species toward extinction.

Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, is now meeting in Geneva to evaluate and fine-tune the treaty that manages trade in more than 35,000 species of plants and animals. The parties will consider proposals to hike protection of two particularly imperiled otter species.

The Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter are already listed as threatened under CITES Appendix II, but India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines are asking that they be moved to Appendix I, which would mean a full international trade ban.

Conservationists insist the move is vital, after both species have seen their numbers plunge at least 30 percent over three decades, and with the decline believed to have accelerated significantly in the past few years.

"This is especially being fueled by the desire to have otters as an exotic pet, and social media is really driving that," said Cassandra Koenen, who heads the Wildlife Not Pets campaign at World Animal Protection.

Amid the growing demand for pet otters, hunters and fishermen in Indonesia and Thailand especially are increasingly killing adult otters and snatching the babies, which are caged and shipped off to become exotic pets.

The main destination is Japan, where one otter pup can fetch up to $10,000.

Several "otter cafes" have also popped up in the country, with patrons urged to buy small pieces of food to feed the caged mammals and to snap a selfie with them while drinking a coffee.

"It is a very unnatural environment for them," Koenen said, maintaining that they are often isolated in individual cages, given poor nutrition and little access to water.

Otters are not the only species suffering from a booming and often social-media fueled interest in exotic pets.

Among the 56 proposals on the table in Geneva for increased protection listings, 22 involve species-including lizards, geckos, tortoises and spiders - which suffer because of the multibillion-dollar exotic pet trade.

Agence France - Presse

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