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News Navigator: Why did CITES ban trade of 2 otter species amid craze in Japan?

An otter being raised in an "animal cafe" is seen in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on May 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Igarashi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about strengthened regulations on the international trade of otters, amid a craze for acquiring the animals as pets in Japan.

Question: How did the otter trade become strictly regulated?

Answer: A multinational treaty to protect endangered plants and animals called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulates the international wildlife trade. A conference of countries and regions that have signed the convention was held in Switzerland in August, during which Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters were included on a list that prohibits commercial trade of the animals in principle.

The two species mainly inhabit areas near waters in Southeast Asia. However, their numbers have decreased due to the deterioration of water quality, excessive fur hunting and other causes. Since 1977, the species were included on a list where permission from the country in which the animals inhabit is required to import them.

Q: Why did the trade of the two endangered otter species become strictly regulated?

A: TV programs featuring the animals in Japan triggered a boom in demand for Asian small-clawed otters as pets. It has been pointed out that such trends can lead to a rise in wildlife smuggling. There has been a case where an otter was sold for several hundred thousand yen. According to the international nongovernmental organization TRAFFIC, which monitors wildlife trafficking, a total of 39 otters were confiscated before they were smuggled into Japan in 2016 and 2017.

Q: Did Japan agree to strengthen the regulation?

A: In the August conference, countries in which the Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters inhabit, such as India, suggested stricter regulations. Meanwhile, Indonesia -- which has permitted the export of some otter species to Japan -- opposed the proposal on the grounds that the species are not rare, among other reasons. Japan aligned with Indonesia, in opposition to the plan.

Q: How will Japan respond?

A: The Ministry of the Environment will designate Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters as internationally endangered species of wild fauna and flora. The species can only be imported for academic purposes, with permission from the country where they inhabit. The ones currently raised in Japan can be adopted by a new owner if authorized by the environment ministry to do so.

It is difficult to raise otters, as they require fresh fish and shellfish for food. The best way to interact with one may be to simply visit a zoo.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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