Search #otter on Instagram, and you’ll find 642,858 posts (at last count). There are pics and videos of otters eating num-nums, otters playing with cat toys, otters taking naps, and otters plunging down children’s slides. These furry tubes with whiskered faces are about as squee-inducing as any animals on earth, but most of the otters in the images aren’t living in zoos or in the wild. The #OttersofInstagram are by and large being kept as pets, and more than a few belong to species paddling toward extinction.
Small-clawed otters are the littlest of their kind, and that makes them fan favorites when it comes to social media, says Paul Todd, an attorney for NRDC who works on illegal wildlife trade issues. These little fluffballs are found across Asia, from India and China to Indonesia and the Philippines. In addition to being trapped for a social media–fueled pet trade or poached for their fur, the otters face rampant habitat loss from aquaculture and coffee and tea plantations. Worse still, the fish they need to survive are becoming fewer and farther between thanks to pollution from agriculture, mining, and energy extraction.
And pretty much the same goes for the smooth-coated otter, a species that shares a similar range, is even more coveted for its thick fur, and is also all over Instagram. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers both species vulnerable to extinction.
“Asian small-clawed otters are guardians of our streams and water resources,” says Lyca Sandrea Castro, an otter expert at Western Philippines University–Puerto Princesa Campus. “They help protect and maintain the health of our aquatic ecosystems. The destruction of their natural habitats would also mean degradation of our life support systems, our forest, and water sources.”
According to a report produced by TRAFFIC, authorities conducted 13 busts of otter poachers across Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam between 2015 and 2017, rescuing 59 live animals. Most of them were juveniles, which suggests they were destined to become pets. (While it’s technically possible to breed otters in captivity, it’s not the barrel of laughs it looks like online.)
“The reality is that keeping otters as pets is risky, tedious, and costly,” says Castro. “They are wild, carnivorous mammals that have sharp teeth. They can bite and transmit diseases to humans and other domesticated animals. They are smelly, messy, and difficult to clean.”
As aquatic animals, otters need access to a regular bathing area. Got a spare pool? And they eat lots and lots of fish and crabs—which is expensive on the front end and, well, noxious on the back end. “One of those fun facts about otters—they have this really odiferous, really yucky-smelling poop,” says Todd. (No current Instagram filter adequately captures this trait.)
Not every otter trafficker, however, is in the pet business. The fur trade prizes smooth-coated otters for their thick, waterproof pelts. Ecologist Katrina Fernandez, director of the India-based conservation group Wild Otters, says, “Tibetans used to use otter fur trimmings for their traditional dress until the Dalai Lama requested against it.”
In fact, the preponderance of otter pelts in marketplaces is what tipped people off to the species’ decline, says NRDC’s Todd. “Several of our partner groups who work on tigers and other big cats would file a report saying they found five tiger skins in a market in Southeast Asia, and ‘Oh, by the way, it’s not what we’re investigating, but there were also hundreds of otter skins.’”
Fernandez says such pelts are often the result of fishermen catching otters by accident or on purpose to remove a competitor for fish. But “when the fishers realize there is money to be made in the fur trade, there is potential for this to then become targeted killing.”
Nobody knows exactly how many Asian small-clawed otters or smooth-coated otters are left in India and Southeast Asia, but the general consensus is that numbers are trending downward.
For the smooth-coats, there are simply too many areas in India where there aren’t enough data to make a projection, says Fernandez. Likewise, Asian small-clawed otters are nocturnal and more elusive than other otters, says Castro. They also prefer shallow streams that are often inaccessible and far apart, which makes observing the critters tricky and accurately counting a population nearly impossible.
Fortunately, there are many people and organizations working to save these species before it’s too late. This May, at the annual meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Philippines, India, and Nepal are expected to introduce a proposal to up-list Asian small-clawed otters from Appendix II to Appendix I, a shift that would essentially ban their international and commercial trade. India, Bangladesh, and Nepal plan to propose the same change of status for smooth-coated otters.
So far, the outlook is good. “We don’t know any countries that are specifically opposed to it,” says Todd. “Who would oppose protecting otters?”
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.