Most otters are hunted for their skins, the study found.
However, otters are now being increasingly targeted for the pet trade.
There has been a rise in live otter trading in the last five years (2011-2015), peaking in 2013 and 2014 with 16 and 10 individuals respectively, the study found.
India is a hotspot of otter poaching, according to a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Of the 167 otter seizures in South and Southeast Asia between 1980 and 2015 — consisting of around 6,000 otters — 53 percent seizures involved India, the TRAFFIC team found. This intense otter trade mainly caters to China’s demand for otter skin and fur, and persists despite India’s native otter species being protected by national law.
The total number of formally recorded seizures, however, are likely to represent only a fraction of the actual illegal otter trade, the report says. This is because annual seizure records for most of the study period, 1980-2015, are either absent or incomplete. Moreover, the otter trade is secretive in nature and much of the trade goes undetected, the authors write.
“Very little effort has been made in the past to tackle the illegal trade in otters here in Southeast Asia, largely due to ignorance of the situation and an overall lack of concern for ‘low-profile species’,” Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “It is high time this group of species receive the conservation attention they so urgently deserve.”
The most commonly encountered species in the seizures was the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra), followed by the threatened Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), and the Small-clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinerea). Only six individuals of the hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) were seized, the report says, possibly because this species is the rarest of the otters.
Most otters are hunted for their fur. Seizure data revealed that around 98 percent of the seizures, involving 5,866 otters, consisted of otter skins.
However, in addition to the fur trade, otters are now being increasingly targeted for the pet trade. TRAFFIC found that 59 live otters were seized between 1980 and 2015. While this number may seem low, there has been a rise in live otter trading in the last five years (2011-2015), the study found, peaking in 2013 and 2014 with 16 and 10 individuals respectively. Of the four otter species, the small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter are particularly favored as pets.
Seizure reports show that live animals came mainly from Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, where all seizures involved live animals. Seizure records from Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand reported both live and dead otters. However, the low number of live animals being traded may indicate that the illegal otter pet trade is mainly domestic, the team speculates.
The true scale of the illegal otter trade is still unknown, the team says, and is likely taking a toll on the wild populations.
‘’What little we know is already setting off alarm bells,” Nicole Duplaix, Chair of the IUCN-SSC Otter Specialist Group, said in the statement. “Further investigations, including into new trends like otter trade online, are critical if we are to understand the scope of the threats facing otters and take the necessary steps to protect them.”