NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, THAILAND – Social media is increasingly being used as a means of smuggling endangered otters, and Thai authorities say this is making it difficult to crack down on secret networks.
Illicit trade in the Asian small-clawed otter, an animal that has seen booming demand as pets in Japan, has been on the rise.
Police in Phatthalung province in southern Thailand arrested two people in connection with a recent investigation, including a 27-year-old man who admitted in late October to trying to smuggle otters inside cardboard boxes.
Authorities said 18 of the otters, including 11 newborns — each with a street value of 3,500 baht (¥12,600) — were discovered in a clothing shop run by the man. The suspect also admitted to smuggling such otters in the past.
Calls for preserving rare species of animals are increasing worldwide. A ban on the international commercial trade of the otters found in Southeast Asia, designated as a species threatened with extinction, took effect Tuesday under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
In Thailand, unauthorized trading and possession of the fish-eating mammals is banned, but demand for them as pets remains strong.
With some fetching over ¥1 million each in Japan, smuggling has increased sharply, prompting Thai authorities to heighten surveillance on the trade.
Otter cafes have been springing up across Japan, with one in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district reportedly keeping about 15 otters imported legally from Indonesia.
A Japanese man who operates an otter cafe in Tokyo and another in Fukuoka, said he has been approached a number of times about purchasing the animals.
In summer 2018, he contacted authorities about a man who tried to sell him two emaciated otters. The police eventually arrested the man on suspicion of smuggling them.
According to Traffic, a wildlife trade watchdog, a total of 59 otters smuggled from Southeast Asia were taken into protective custody between 2015 and 2017, of which 32 were headed to Japan.
Indeed, social networking sites have become the main conduit for smuggling activities, according to Thai authorities.
In the Phatthalung case, a police officer posing on Facebook as a customer was able to gather enough information to result in the two arrests.
But an official in charge at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand suggested the case is simply the tip of an iceberg.
“This is not even close to a full-scale investigation” of the illicit trading of otters, the official said.
One of the men who was arrested admitted that he had been asked by unknown “customers” to find otters and procured them via unknown “suppliers,” reaching out to people on social media. He planned to ship most of the animals to Bangkok.
The plan may have been to resell the otters and ship them abroad from Bangkok, but because smuggling networks are loosely connected and many participants use fake names on social media, investigations often hit a dead end.
In Thailand, otters inhabit the southern region, including Nakhon Si Thammarat, where they come to feed in fish-breeding ponds. But a 54-year-old neighborhood resident said the number of otters has recently dropped considerably due to habitat loss caused by the expanding construction of houses.
As a result, illicit trading in “bred otters” is increasing due to the decreasing population of wild otters. “There must be secret breeding places, but we cannot pinpoint them,” a senior official at the wildlife conservation department said.
A group dubbed “the society of otter owners” has a page on Facebook. After a series of email exchanges, it admitted that it breeds the animals in Malaysia and sells them for 2,500 baht (¥9,000) each in Thailand.
Thailand has extended the maximum prison term for illicit trading of endangered animals to 10 years from four — the strongest evidence the Thai government is serious about stamping out the trade.
Asked if the group is concerned about the Thai government stepping up efforts to crack down on otter smuggling, it responded, “There is a mountain of deals unknown to authorities, and it is impossible to eliminate smuggling.”