OTTERS are cute and furry. They are also mini Internet sensations. Even actor Benedict Cumberbatch is known to make otter-like facial expressions!
But it is because they are so adorable that they have fallen victim to the illegal wildlife trade.
Many people dream about owning their very own otter, and that is why otters are a hot commodity in the flourishing exotic pet industry.
In a recent Traffic report, the online pet trade has posed as a pressing threat to the species. Traffic found 560 advertisements of otters for sale on Facebook and other websites over a four-month period (January to April 2018).
In just four months, between 734 and 1,189 otters were observed for sale. Most of these advertisements were recorded from Indonesia, followed by Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Even though Malaysia recorded just 10 adverts next to Indonesia’s 449 ads, we are still implicit in the illegal trade.
Otters are a protected species in most countries. In Malaysia, all four otter species are listed in the highest protection category, ‘Totally Protec-ted’, in the Wildlife Conservation Act.
This means that hunting or keeping otters as pets without permits is punishable by a maximum fine of RM100,000 and/or a maximum jail sentence of three years in Peninsular Malaysia.
But despite these laws, there are still people inquiring about where they can get an otter on Facebook.
A Facebook search found postings of individuals looking to buy otters, and a couple of people who were openly selling otters in Facebook groups in Malaysia.
Sellers and interested buyers are clearly brave enough to blatantly advertise and inquire on the sale of a protected species on social media.
The troubling thing is that there is a clear demand for them. In all the posts, there are several people inquiring about the price of the otters.
In many of these posts, the otters are still babies. I can’t help but feel sad thinking about how these young creatures are snatched away from their mother just to be caged in homes. These otters will not know how to frolic in the water with their family.
I wonder if these wannabe-otter-owners know how much effort it takes to house otters.
Otters are not meant to be kept as house pets, they are wild animals. You cannot cuddle them like their ferret cousins.
After doing some research on the Internet, I realised that otters can be quite a handful. They can bite and claw you; they can spray a poignant odor much like a skunk’s spray; they are nocturnal so they tend to seek food at night; they need water to swim in; and they eat a lot of fish.
Otter owners need to have a steady supply of fish, as they eat 15% to 25% of their body weight in fish!
Plus, you can’t just release them into the wild if you decide that it is too hard to take care of them. Otters that are kept as pets cannot be reintroduced into the wild as they will likely not survive.
So I find it very worrying that these otters can be so easily acquired through a simple click of a button.
I posed the issue of otters being part of the illegal online trade at a press conference with the Depart-ment of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) recently.
Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim said that wildlife cybercrime was a growing problem in Malaysia and seems to be a “new trend” in the illegal wildlife trade.
“We receive more than 50 online complaints every week. We would take down the pages selling illegal wildlife, but they keep popping up,” he said.
Judging from the seizures Perhilitan has made over the years, Abdul Kadir believes there is a demand for “exotic” wildlife in Malaysia.
However, not all advertisements online are genuine. Abdul Kadir said that many ads selling exotic wildlife are actually scams.
“The seller will use old photos of the animal, and ask the interested buyer to deposit money. Once they receive the money, they will disappear,” he said.
However, Abdul Kadir also warned that both buyers and sellers of illegal wildlife can be charged in court for buying and selling wildlife illegally.
Even though we have the laws against the sale and ownership of otters, education is severely lacking. Malaysians need to be more aware on wildlife that are protected under Malaysian law, and the penalties they face.
Shutting down accounts and pages that advertise protected wildlife is one thing, but the Government should consider enacting laws that penalise people for posting such ads.
With every account or page that is closed, another will pop up, I believe that the Government should nip it in the bud by making it an offence.
Social media has made it so easy for traders to hide behind a profile and profit from the sale of protected species, not thinking twice about the negative impact they are causing.
We are losing more and more of our wildlife to the illegal wildlife trade. If we are not careful, some of these species may face extinction.
We have to take action now, before it is too late!