ILLEGAL OTTER TRADE An analysis of seizures in selected Asian countries (1980–2015)
This study is focused on four otter species in Asia; the Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra, the Hairy-nosed Otter Lutra sumatrana, the Small-clawed Otter Aonyx cinereus and the Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata. The illegal wildlife trade poses a direct threat to all four species as they are popular for their fur and increasingly for their supposed qualities as pets. This study is an analysis of otter seizure data during the period 1980 to July 2015 inclusive. This study was born out of a desire to understand the extent and scale of the trade involving all four Asian otter species, effectively facilitating future research and action plans. However, otter seizure data for the region were scarce and more often than not, non-existent. Nevertheless, based on the seizure records acquired, it can be concluded that the illegal otter trade is persistent and largely unchecked, despite otter species being protected across their ranges.
Overall, a total of 167 otter seizures were recorded across 15 countries in Asia between 1980 and 2015 involving a total of 5979 individuals. The majority (98%) of these cases was associated with the hunting of otters for their skins in countries like China, India and Nepal. This trade seems mostly to involve the Eurasian Otter and Smooth-coated Otter. It must be noted however, that in general a large number (83%) of seized skins were not identified down to species level owing to the difficulty of distinguishing between the skins of the different species. This clearly obstructs the ability to estimate the impacts of the otter trade on specific species and complicates the task of prioritizing species of concern. While the seizures of otter skins has increased over the years in terms of frequency, the quantities seized have decreased. This could be attributed to an increase in undetected trade; or more worryingly to declining otter populations.
In countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam, otters are hunted to supply a growing pet trade that appears to be mostly domestic, in which the Small-clawed Otter and the Smooth-coated Otter are evidently popular. The emerging trend of otters being used as pets was further hinted at through preliminary scans of social media websites (in both English and local languages) and trade fora in which a flourishing online pet trade was discovered (e.g. Indonesia and Viet Nam), in addition to an increasing number of seizures involving live individuals since the early 2000s.
The Hairy-nosed Otter was by far the least encountered species in this study, with only six individuals seized between 2002 and 2008 in five separate incidents. All the seizures of this species, three of which involved skins and three of which involved live individuals, occurred in Cambodia. Considering that this species is already under severe pressure, any level of trade is likely to pose a significant risk to its survival.
Overall seizure data for otters were scarce across the region preventing us from drawing any firm conclusions on the extent of the trade. Nevertheless, it is clear that the illegal otter trade is ongoing and most likely poses a significant threat to all four otter species in Asia assessed in this study. Further investigation is urgently required to establish a more complete overview of the live otter trade, including extensive assessments of the online trade to enhance protection of otters across their range.