By Agence France-Presse
Social media users are fuelling a burgeoning appetite for acquiring wild otters and other endangered animals as pets, conservationists say, warning the trend could push species towards extinction.
Popular Instagrammers posting selfies with their pet otter may simply be seeking to warm the hearts of their sometimes 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,” Nicole Duplaix, who co-chairs the Otter Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told AFP.
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 towards extinction.
Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), currently in Geneva to evaluate and fine-tune the treaty that manages trade in more than 35,000 species of plants and animals, will consider proposals to hike protection of two particularly imperilled otter species.
Dangerous ‘cute factor’
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 are 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 fuelled by the desire to have otters as an exotic pet, and social media is really driving that,” Cassandra Koenen, who heads the Wildlife Not Pets campaign at World Animal Protection, told AFP.
Paul Todd of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) agreed.
“It is really remarkable to see how the latest trends in social media and social influencing have a direct correlation with the demise of species on the ground,” he told AFP.
Popular figures on Instagram and Facebook often rake in thousands of gushing comments about their otter pictures, such as “cuteness overload”, “otterly adorable”, and “want one!”.
Duplaix acknowledged that otters are “very charismatic creatures,” saying “it is the cute factor that is causing their demise.”
The pictures mask the suffering of the naturally social mammals taken from the wild when they are held in captivity and isolation.
Koenen pointed to the numerous “funny videos” posted of pet otters turning in circles, saying that to a trained eye, it is obvious: “The true reason the animal is spinning around is that it is in huge distress.”
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 (about 9,000 euros).