In what was a big victory for otter conservation worldwide, the countries meeting at the World Wildlife Conference in Geneva this week decided to ban all international commercial trade in two endangered species of tropical Asian river otters.
The Conference, which is the 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), is where the countries that have agreed to the CITES treaty decide what species are in need of protection and how to go about implementing bans or regulations on global trade in wildlife.
Today, Asian small-clawed otters were listed on Appendix I, which affords the highest level of protection under the international law. They join smooth-coated otters, which were listed on Appendix I on Sunday. Species on Appendix I cannot be traded across borders for commercial purposes. Both species and are facing a high risk of extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Counting otters in the wild is notoriously difficult—estimating population sizes and collecting data on rates of decline is virtually impossible. However, the IUCN Otter Specialist Group thinks that the decline of both Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters has been even more precipitous than has been reported in the IUCN Red List, especially given their low density, extreme habitat loss, and growing exploitation for trade. Another otter species, the hairy-nosed otter, is nearly extinct in the region.
And the trade in live otters for pets and attractions in cafes and coffee shops has become an emerging threat to Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters, with demand being driven by online platforms. Over just a four-month period, between 734 and 1189 otters were advertised for sale online in 560 advertisements in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, according to a 2018 TRAFFIC study. Although small-clawed otters appeared in online advertisements most frequently, smooth-coated otters were also found for sale.
Over the last several years, a scary, social-media driven craze for keeping cute wild animals as pets and as attractions in coffee shops and cafes is driving otters and other animals towards extinction. Multiple, recent reports by TRAFFIC, WildCru, World Animal Protection, and others have shown that seizures of live Asian otters are increasing, and the popularity of the animals on Instagram and other social media sites is fueling demand and interest in live otters as pets and as attractions.
NRDC began working with tropical Asian otter range states, key partners in the South and Southeast Asia region, and the IUCN Otter Specialist group almost three years ago to develop the biological and trade information necessary to propose listings on CITES Appendix I for the two species. India, the Philippines, Nepal, and Bangladesh submitted the proposals to ban commercial trade in small-clawed and smooth-coated otters for consideration at CITES CoP18 and led the fight for their adoption.