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SOURCE: Independent and MongaBay

DATE: May 28, 2019

SNIP: An Instagram-fuelled craze in Japan for keeping otters in cafes and as pets is driving a deadly surge in poaching the animals from the wild – driving them to the brink of extinction, investigators say.

Social media influencers who regularly post photos of their pet otters that have become famous are blamed for speeding up demand for the semi-aquatic species in many parts of Asia.

The animals’ popularity has led to a rush to open otter cafes in Japan, where customers touch, play, feed and cuddle them, as well as people buying them to keep at home.

As a result, Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members have sprung up, dedicated to illegally trading in otters, the undercover investigation found.

Many members are customers of the organised networks of farmers, hunters and traffickers who steal cubs from the wild, killing the parents to capture the babies, according to World Animal Protection (WAP), which carried out the investigation.

Tokyo now has more than half a dozen otters cafés, which vary in terms of the contact visitors are allowed, and the conditions the otters are kept in. At some of the cafés we visited, otters were confined to small rooms filled with people allowed to run riot. Others were locked in cages for the majority of the day. The otters’ welfare is severely compromised for the entertainment of visitors. As Cassandra Koenen, Global Head of Campaigns for World Animal Protection noted:

The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water. One of the otters we saw had even bitten the end of its tail off.

“What we found was a highly complex network with links to organized crime. As Koenen put it: “The trade in otters as pets is an interlinked trade network involving farmers, hunters, collectors, dealers, enforcement agencies, and transportation operatives. The explosion [of] famous otters on social media is driving the demand for otters, making it a lucrative business.”