Asian Countries Propose Bans on Commercial Trade in Otters

There’s something very important you otter know: India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines have submitted proposals to ban all international commercial trade in two species of otter in South and Southeast Asia: The Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter. Final decisions on the proposals will be made in May in Colombo, Sri Lanka during the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). More than two-thirds of all the CITES Parties in attendance must vote to adopt the proposals for the ban to take effect.

Currently, both the Asian small-clawed and the smooth-coated otter are listed on Appendix II of CITES, which allows regulated international trade. These new proposals would transfer the species to Appendix I, banning all international commercial trade. Recent investigations by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, paint a grim picture for both otter species. Their populations have declined by more than 30 percent largely due to destruction of their habitat and exploitation for the global trade in otter skins and pet trade, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Asian small-clawed otter

Nicole Duplaix

Unfortunately, nobody really knows how many otters there are in South and Southeast Asia, or just how many are being killed by poachers for global trade. Between 1980 and 2018, national authorities confiscated otter specimens more than 250 times, seizing specimens that came from more than 6,000 individual otters. But, because relatively little attention is paid to enforcement for these species, the specimens are rarely identified down to the species level (there are actually four species in the region), and the seizures that are reported likely represent only a small fraction of the overall illegal trade in otters in the region.

The pet trade is a growing threat to Asian small-clawed otters especially—they are popular attractions in zoos and increasingly in pet shops, pet fairs, and even in coffee shops, particularly in Japan. In just two years, between 2015 and 2017, 32 live Asian small-clawed otters, mostly juveniles, were confiscated in four countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam), according to TRAFFIC. A few weeks ago, 10 live small-clawed otters were discovered crammed into shipping crates and confiscated in North Viet Nam, and are now being rehabilitated by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, an NRDC partner.

Smooth-coated otter

Nicole Duplaix

Smooth-coated otters in particular are prized for their furs, and are often trafficked from South and, increasingly, Southeast Asia to China and other markets. Between 1980 and 2015, 2,949 illegal otter pelts were confiscated in India alone, and a significant number were likely smooth-coated otters given their desirability. The trade in live otters for pets is an emerging threat to smooth-coated otters as well.

For both species, online trade is making matters worse.

Despite the discouraging figures, NRDC has been working with organizations around the world for over a year now to build the case for a ban on international commercial trade in smooth-coated and Asian small-clawed otters. We have helped assemble a coalition of groups in support of the proposals that includes international conservation and animal welfare organizations, national conservation groups, and small, local advocates for wildlife and habit protection.

The world will be watching as CITES parties vote on the fate of these social and intelligent animals that the public has come to love. We cannot stand idly by when faced with the possibility of losing otters forever, and we thank India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh for their leadership. The call to action is clear: We otter protect otters before it’s too late. 

About the Authors

Paul Todd

Senior Staff Attorney, Nature program

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