She goes for walks on a leash. She sleeps in a bed, plays with a ball, and clings onto her stuffed animal toy. This pet isn’t a dog or a cat or a rabbit or a hamster. She’s a small-clawed otter, an Asian species that in the wild hunts for fish and crustaceans and frolics in streams and mangroves.
Her name is Sakura, and videos on YouTube and Twitter of her life in Japan have made her a social media sensation.
Small-clawed otters and to a lesser extent the three other otter species found in Southeast Asia—the Eurasian otter, the smooth-coated otter, and the hairy-nosed otter—have become new stars of the regional pet trade. Researchers believe that people are stealing them from the wild in Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries in Southeast Asia to sell them as pets there and in Japan.
“The cute factor is unfortunately the appeal,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, director of the Southeast Asia branch of the nonprofit Traffic, the main organization that monitors the global wildlife trade. “These animals are very, very popular.”
Otters found in Southeast Asia are intelligent and winsome, with slender little bodies, chubby legs, and baby faces. People will pay thousands of dollars to own one of these creatures.
According to a recent Traffic report, researchers counting the number of otters for sale on Facebook in five Southeast Asian countries documented at least 700 between January and mid-May 2018. Most sellers offered young small-clawed otters, smaller (at less than 10 pounds) than their longer-clawed counterparts.
The four otter species aren’t on the brink of extinction, but they’re not exactly thriving. They ingest dangerous pesticides and have been losing habitat to development. They’ve also long been poached for their dense fur—made into coats and hats that are especially popular in China—and for their blood, fat, and bones, all believed in certain parts of Asia to have healing powers.
The pet trade, however, has emerged as the most pressing threat to these otters in the wild, the Traffic report states.
Breeding them in captivity, Krishnasamy says, is possible but difficult. To keep the cubs and parents healthy, owners have to feed them a highly specialized diet and give them shots to prevent infection, such as distemper.
“It’s not like breeding kittens,” says Nicole Duplaix, who teaches about otter ecology at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, and is chairwoman of the otter specialist group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species. “There’s no such thing as otter mills.”
To protect the animals, most Southeast Asian countries have enacted laws banning their capture, sale, possession, and transport. The small-clawed otter, the smooth-coated otter, and the hairy-nosed otter are also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which regulates the global wildlife trade. This means that people need a permit to export them and that the permit can be granted only if the source government determines that taking an otter from the wild won’t jeopardize the survival of the species.
Some nations want to prohibit international trade of certain otter species, and at the major upcoming CITES meeting in May, countries will discuss new proposals to move the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter to Appendix I of the treaty. The uplistings would prohibit all international commercial trade of those species. The Eurasian otter has been listed on Appendix I since 1977.
Despite these constraints, illegal commerce in pet otters flourishes on social media platforms that have popularized all sorts of exotic animals—from venomous spiders to big cats to talking birds—and made it easier for people to sell them.
“Online trade has unfortunately unwittingly encouraged exotic pet ownership because it’s so difficult to police what’s going on online,” Krishnasamy says.
According to the Traffic study, the vast majority of Facebook ads were from Indonesia, followed by Thailand. (Researchers counted none out of the Philippines, and about 30 from Malaysia and Vietnam combined).
In Indonesia and Thailand, owning exotic pets is “deeply ingrained in the culture,” according to Krishnasamy. The ads appeared to target local buyers, she says, but seizures of otters at checkpoints indicates that there’s also some trade across borders.
Last year, a woman was detained at Thailand’s Don Mueang International Airport, in Bangkok, for attempting to smuggle 10 baby otters to Japan, which is experiencing a boom in pet otters. (The animals have popped up in cafés, are stars on reality shows, and even compete for most adorable in an annual contest called the otter general election.)
One U.S.-based seller, James Lilly, wrote in a text message that he breeds otter species found in Southeast Asia and that they make good pets. They’re playful and behave quite like house cats, he says.
But according to Duplaix, they’re destructive, make loud whistling noises, and can become aggressive when they don’t get what they want. She likens their sharp bite to that of a sewing machine piercing fabric. “A wolf cub might be very sweet, but it’s going to grow up as a wolf,” she says. “Same thing with an otter.”
Tom Taylor is the program director for Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a nonprofit that rescues wildlife, including otters, from exploitative domestic situations in the country. “We can’t keep up with the amount of unwanted pets,” he wrote in an email.
Keeping otters as pets isn’t good for the animals, either, Taylor says. In the wild, the freshwater-loving carnivores live in family groups of up to 15. This contrasts with their lives in captivity, where they’re isolated from other otters and often get no more than a dunking in the bathtub. “Most pet otters are treated like toys—we see them on pet leads, wearing dolls’ clothing, and fed very bad human diets,” Taylor says.
Krishnasamy and others are pushing for better enforcement of existing regulations and stronger laws to protect otters from the pet trade. In Japan, for example, it’s legal to keep small-clawed otters. And, according to the Traffic report, Indonesia hasn’t explicitly outlawed the sale of wild otters. It’s only illegal to sell them there because the country hasn’t set a quota for legal sales.
Duplaix and others also want to spread the word that otters shouldn’t be kept as pets. As she says: “It isn’t cool.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.