'Otterly' adorable: Demand for cute selfies puts animals at risk
Instragrammers gain is otters' life loss
Popular Instagrammers posting selfies with their pet otter may simply be seeking to warm the hearts of their sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers, but animal protection groups say the trend is posing an existential threat to the silky mammal.
"The illegal trade in otters has suddenly increased exponentially," Nicole Duplaix, who co-chairs the Otter Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told AFP.
"This is especially being fuelled by the desire to have otters as an exotic pet, and social media is really driving that," Cassandra Koenen, who heads the Wildlife Not Pets campaign at World Animal Protection, told AFP.
Paul Todd of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) agreed.
"It is really remarkable to see how the latest trends in social media and social influencing have a direct correlation with the demise of species on the ground," he told AFP.
Popular figures on Instagram and Facebook often rake in thousands of gushing comments about their otter pictures, such as "cuteness overload", "otterly adorable", and "want one!".
Duplaix acknowledged that otters are "very charismatic creatures," saying "it is the cute factor that is causing their demise."
When in distress otters spin around
Koenen pointed to the numerous "funny videos" posted of pet otters turning in circles, saying that to a trained eye, it is obvious: "The cturreason the animal is spinning around is that it is in huge distress."
Amid the growing demand for pet otters, hunters and fishermen in Indonesia and Thailand especially are increasingly killing adult otters and snatching the babies, which are caged and shipped off to become exotic pets.
The main destination is Japan, where one otter pup can fetch up to $10,000 (about 9,000 euros).
Several "otter cafes" have also popped up in the country, with patrons urged to buy small pieces of food to feed the caged mammals and to snap a selfie with them while drinking a coffee.
Selfie with otters: A false narrative
Pet otters may have it better, but they still suffer from being far from their natural environment and away from the large family groups they lived with in the wild, she said.
Koenen also warned that smiling selfies with pet otters provide a "false narrative" about what it is like to live with the wild creatures, which smell and are prone to biting.
"They make very unsuitable pets," she said.
Desire for images a life threat to otters
Otters are not the only species suffering from a booming and often social-media fuelled interest in exotic pets.
Among the 56 proposals on the table in Geneva for increased protection listings, 22 involve species -- including lizards, geckos, tortoises and spiders -- which suffer because of the multi-billion-dollar exotic pet trade.
Todd said there was mounting evidence that "a species can go from completely fine to utterly gone in the matter of a few years because of this drive in desire for images".
"Baby otters are dying, and for what? A selfie," he said. "We have to stop this."