A promotional signboard for a pet cafe that features otters at the Harajuku district in Tokyo. AFP
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, said.
All Asian otter species have long been listed as vulnerable or endangered after facing decades of shrinking habitats and illegal trade in their pelts.
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 said.
Koenen pointed to the numerous "funny videos" posted of pet otters turning in circles, saying that to a trained eye, it is obvious: "The reason the animal is spinning around is that it is in huge distress."
Several "otter cafes" have also popped up in the country, with patrons urged to buy small pieces of food to feed the caged mammals and to snap a selfie with them while drinking a coffee.
"It is a very unnatural environment for them," Koenen said, maintaining that they are often isolated in individual cages, given poor nutrition and little access to water.
Pet otters may have it better, but they still suffer from being far from their natural environment and away from the large family groups they lived with in the wild, she said.
Koenen also warned that smiling selfies with pet otters provide a "false narrative" about what it is like to live with the wild creatures, which smell and are prone to biting.
"They make very unsuitable pets," she said.
Social media platforms have meanwhile made it too easy to purchase exotic pets like otters, she said, sparking impulse buys with little reflection over the implications of bringing a wild animal into one's home.
Todd said there was mounting evidence that "a species can go from completely fine to utterly gone in the matter of a few years because of this drive in desire for images".
"Baby otters are dying, and for what? A selfie," he said. "We have to stop this."
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