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Illicit trade of otters via social networking on the rise

Otters ranging from 2 months to a year in age are seized by the Thai Department of Natural Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation before being delivered to provinces in Thailand. (Kyodo)

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, Thailand (Kyodo) -- Social media is increasingly being used as a means of smuggling endangered otters, and Thai authorities say that 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, a province in southern Thailand, arrested two people in connection with a recent case, including a 27-year-old man who, in late October, admitted to charges of trying to smuggle the otters to customers inside cardboard boxes.

Authorities said that 18 of the otters, including 11 newborns, each with a street value of 3,500 baht ($116), were discovered at a clothing shop run by the man during an investigation. 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, will take effect on Nov. 26 under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

In Thailand, one of the supply nations of the otters, unauthorized trading and possession of the fish-eating mammals is banned, but demand for them as pets remains strong.

Otters used to be traded in secret in Bangkok until a few years ago. With some fetching over 1 million yen ($9,200) 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 two otter cafes in Tokyo and Fukuoka, said he has been approached a number of times about purchasing the animals.

In the summer of 2018, he contacted authorities about a man who tried to sell him two emaciated otters. The police later 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, Thai authorities said.

In the case in Thailand, in an exchange that began over Facebook, a police officer disguised as a customer was able to gather enough information, leading to 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 the iceberg.

"This is not even close to a full-scale investigation" of the illicit trading of otters, the official said.

The arrested man 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 otters could have possibly been resold and shipped abroad from the capital city, but as smuggling networks are loosely connected with many of the participants on the social networking sites using fake names, investigations often hit a dead end, authorities said.

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 seen there recently has dropped considerably due to habitat loss caused by the expanding construction of houses.

Hence, 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 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 the smuggling of otters, it responded, "There is a mountain of deals unknown to authorities and, it is impossible to eliminate smuggling."

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