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Exotic pets: otters are "trendy"

To protect animals, most Southeast Asian countries have enacted laws that make the capture, sale, possession, and transportation of otters illegal. The dwarf otter, the Indian otter and the hair-nosed otter are also listed in Appendix II of the Washington Convention on the Protection of Species (CITES), which regulates the worldwide trade in wild animals. This means that you need a permit for the export of the animals, which is only granted if the relevant government decides that removing an otter from the wild does not endanger the survival of the species.

Some countries want to ban international trade in certain species of otters altogether. At the next major CITES meeting next May, countries will discuss new applications to move the pygmy otter and Indian otter to Appendix I of the Convention. This would prohibit international commercial trade in these species. The otter has been on Appendix I since 1977.

Despite such restrictions, the illicit trafficking of otters is flourishing on social media, making many exotic animals increasingly popular pets - from poisonous spiders to big cats to talking birds. The platforms make selling these animals easy.

"Unfortunately, e-commerce has unwittingly contributed to the popularity of exotic pet ownership because it is so difficult to control what is happening online," said Krishnasamy.

According to the TRAFFIC study, most of the sales ads on Facebook come from Indonesia, followed by Thailand in second place. (Researchers found no ads from the Philippines, but found 30 from Malaysia and Vietnam combined.)

In Indonesia and Thailand, ownership of exotic pets is "deeply rooted in the culture," as Krishnasamy says. The sales ads seemed to be aimed at local buyers, she says. But the seizures of otters at border crossings show that there is also some level of international trade.

Just last year, a woman was detained at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok for trying to smuggle ten young otters into Japan. The popularity of otters as pets is currently skyrocketing. (The animals are conquering cafes, stars in reality shows, and are even measured against each other in an annual cuteness contest, the Otter General Election.)

A US seller, James Lily, wrote in a text message that he is breeding species of otters that are native to Southeast Asia and that they make good pets. They are playful and act a lot like house cats, he said.

But according to Duplaix, the animals are quite destructive, make loud whistling noises and can become aggressive if they don't get what they want. She compares the bite of her sharp teeth to the needle of a sewing machine that pierces fabric. “Even a wolf cub can be very cute, but it still turns out to be a wolf,” she says. "The same goes for otters."

Tom Taylor is the Program Director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. The non-profit organization rescues wild animals - including otters - from keeping pets. "The number of pets that are no longer wanted is so great that we can no longer keep up," he wrote in an email.