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Illegal Trade

Helping Otters Rescued from the Pet Trade

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus the attention of the world has been drawn to the appalling animal markets trading in many parts of Asia. Of course, we don’t know how the pandemic will affect this trade in the long term, although there does seems to be international pressure to stop wildlife markets.

Illegal trade will still go on of course but hopefully there will be more law enforcement and heavier penalties to act as deterrents.

Sales through various social media sites continue and in certain places these appear to be legal. And yet we do not know the source of these baby otters - they may be wild caught after their mother has been killed or they may be captive-bred, but then we do not know the conditions under which they are kept and whether females are treated like breeding machines as in the notorious “puppy mills”.

Otters have become very popular pets particularly in Indonesia, where there are over 800 people with pet otters in Jakarta alone. They are seen in circuses and when “performing” they look “cute”, which encourages people to want them as pets. However, the animals are often kept in attrocious conditions when out of sight of the public. Demand has also increased considerably with the rise in Japanese otter cafes, where customers can play with the animals. Again, people find the animals “cute” and so want one of their own thus driving the trade.

Some cubs are sold while they still have their eyes closed and prices vary according to the age. Photos and videos shared through social media show otters on sale openly in markets. They are kept in tiny cages and the videos show the frantic behaviour of the young otters. Even when they are bought the new owner may not know how to care for them and so they die and a replacement is simply bought.

What can be done?

We urgently need better law enforcement and increased protection and IOSF is working with various organisations in SE Asia on this. It is particularly important that legal protection is given to Asian small-clawed otters, the most common species of otter being traded.

In the meantime, we can be certain that confiscated animals will continue to arrive at rescue centres in Asia. IOSF is working with centres in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia and the numbers given below give an idea of the scale of the work. The actual number of otters in care changes rapidly as more are brought in and some are released back to the wild. Many of the animals arrive in a pitiful state. Release is the ultimate aim of all the centres but if this cannot be done safely then the animals will remain there in care for the rest of their lives.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW)

In November 2019, a truck trafficking 19 Asian small-clawed otters and one monkey was stopped by police in Dien Chau district, Nghe An province. The quick response team of SVW went to the scene with animal food and medical equipment to rescue the animals, but unfortunately, four otters had already died and the rest were in a poor condition with various wounds. They were given first aid before transfer to Pu Mat National Park for a further health check-up and intensive care.

There were eight males and seven females. All were very small and four still had their eyes closed. Initially the keepers had to feed them a small amount of milk every three hours, day and night, but despite this three did not survive.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)

The final rescue of 2019 for WFFT was an otter, who was yet another victim of the illegal wildlife trade. In this case they were called by a family who wanted to find a new home for their pet, a 10-month-old Asian small-clawed otter named “Pun Pun”.

Pun Pun (right, upon arrival and after care) was only 2 weeks old when she was purchased illegally through a Facebook page. The family thought she would make a cute and wonderful pet, but soon found that she wasn’t so appealing when she started to scream, scratch, bite and toilet all over the place. Luckily for Pun Pun she ended up at WFFT where she was initially placed in quarantine before being introduced to other rescued otters.

This brought the total number of otters in their care to 17.

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC), Cambodia

Phnom Tamao is the only facility in the world which has cared for hairy-nosed otters (right). This is not an easy species to look after as they are very susceptible to water quality and so fresh water must be brought in daily from Phnom Penh. In addition, they have 22 smooth-coated otters and one Asian small-clawed.

Two smooth-coated otters were released at Angkor not long ago and they have since had two cubs. They are showing normal wild behaviour and keeping well away from the many visitors to the area.


There are two centres in Indonesia, Cikananga on Java and Sumeco on Sumatra. Cikananga currently have seven Asian small-clawed otters in care, all rescued from the pet trade. Some of these were in very poor condition and one (Rowena, below) had been surviving on dried catfood! With proper care and diet she soon began to put on weight.

Sumeco has one Asian small-clawed otter and one Eurasian, which were being kept together as pets. Eurasian otters have not been recorded in Indonesia for 70 years.

Recently they received three young Asian small-clawed otter cubs, still with their eyes closed. Despite the best possible care all three of these sadly died.


All of these centres provide exceptional care and the otters are kept in enclosures which are as natural as possible. The aim for all is eventually to return them to the wild where they belong, but this has to be done very carefully so that they do not risk being hunted or caught again. The animals are assessed to make sure they are showing “normal” wild behaviour and then they have to be monitored after release to ensure they are integrating back into the wild. If unfortunately they are judged not to be able to survive in the wild then they remain at the sanctuary.

IOSF has set up an emergency fund to help these sanctuaries and their care of rescued otters. It is always hard for them to raise the necessary funds for food, vet treatment, etc. But now with the pandemic it is even worse. There are no volunteers to help with the care of the animals and many volunteers also contribute towards costs which keeps the sanctuaries running.

IOSF is looking to raise £10,000 which will be divided between the sanctuaries according to the number of otters in their care. This will cover food, vet fees, new enclosures or maintenance work, travel costs for rescues and releases, etc. PLEASE HELP