A lot of otters seized in searches as the critters are caught up in Japan’s ‘culture of cuteness’

Pet cafes, celebrities and the media are being blamed for the rising popularity of the ‘vulnerable’ animals, which are smuggled in from Southeast Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 9:47pm

Japanese celebrities’ penchant for exotic pets and the popularity of animal cafes have fuelled a thriving – and lucrative – trade in smuggled otters from Southeast Asia.

According to the Japan branch of Traffic, the British-based NGO that monitors illegal trading in wild animals, there has been a “surge” in seizures of smuggled otters at airports in Japan and Southeast Asia – mainly Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia – in recent years.

In 13 seizures by customs officials between 2015 and 2017, 59 live otters were detected. Of that total, 32 were bound for Japan. Campaigners say the seizures may be the tip of the iceberg, however, and that many more otters have probably been smuggled into Japan.

“The smuggling of otters to collectors in Japan is not particularly new, but there has been a boom in the popularity of oriental small-clawed otters over the last couple of years,” said Tomomi Kitade, director of the Japan office of Traffic.

“Japanese culture has jumped on the ‘cuteness’ of these animals after they began to be featured on television programmes, and that has served as a stimulus for demand.

“A programme on Nippon TV in 2014 focused on exotic animals and was hugely popular, with celebrities showing off their pets and going on trips with them,” Kitade said. “Lots of people saw that and decided they wanted an otter as well. Then magazines and newspapers started doing features on exotic pets as well.

“Now we can see people walking their pet otters on leashes in parks and buying and selling otters online. And in the last couple of years, we have started to see ‘otter cafes’, where people can to and play with animals. So far, we have identified 10 such cafes.”

A smuggled otter will change hands for as much as 1.3 million yen (US$11,780) in Japan. Traffic is still trying to determine the price of specimens across Southeast Asia.

The oriental small-clawed otter is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Despite being a protected species, the animals are threatened by the destruction of their natural habitats, hunting and pollution.

Under the Washington Convention, a government must give permission for an endangered animal such as the short-clawed otter to be exported for commercial purposes.

Under domestic law, nothing can be done to stop the trade in at-risk otters once they are in Japan because the law conflicts with the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Traffic hopes to convince Japanese politicians to change the laws to bring Japan into compliance.

“We have more research to carry out, but once our report is finalised we hope to have a meeting with the authorities and make a list of recommendations,” Kitade said. “Those will include doing more at the customs level.”