How 11 Baby Otters Were Rescued From a Smuggler’s Suitcase

In China, otter pelts are increasingly sought after for fashionable hats and other clothing.

A Thai official holds a baby otter retrieved from a suitcase. (Photo: Panjit Tansom/TRAFFIC)

Jan 24, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport regularly witnesses a myriad of illegal wildlife turning up in confiscated luggage and stuffed down would-be smugglers’ trousers. Past trafficker exploits include attempts to sneak live sun bear cubs, leopards, gibbons, venomous snakes and even a young tiger in and out of the country. Now, a bag full of live baby otters can be added to that list.

Even if the criminals were caught, they would likely escape with little more than a small fine since countries such as Thailand often do not view wildlife crimes as high priority.

The rescue occurred earlier this week, when airport officers spotted an oversized bag left unattended in the airport. Their scans revealed a curious assortment of bones and fur. Opening the bag, they found 11 baby otters stuffed inside. The animals were shaken from their ordeal, but otherwise appeared to be in good condition.

“The fact that they were found alive is kind of unusual,” said Nicole Duplaix, an ecologist at Oregon State University and the chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Otter Specialist Group. “Otters are very prone to overheating, whatever the species, and most of the time they are found dead,” she explained.

In this case, the otters—five Oriental small clawed otters and six smooth coated otters, both vulnerable species—seem to have escaped the wildlife trade relatively unscathed. Most animals snared by poachers in Southeast Asia are not so lucky, however. In China, otter pelts are increasingly sought after for fashionable hats and other clothing, while their meat turns up on blackmarket restaurant menus in Vietnam and their organs find their way into traditional Chinese medicine recipes throughout the region. “This is just one example that’s gotten some press,” Duplaid pointed out. “The otters that are sold as fur don’t get much press, but they should.”

In Indonesia, on the other hand, demand for pet otters soars. Since these 11 otters were so young and also kept alive, Duplaix speculates that they were likely bound for the pet trade. “Particularly when they’re small, they’re terribly cute,” she said. “But they have a very strong bite, and they don’t grow up to be good pets, of course.”

A rescued baby otter (Photo: Panjit Tansom/TRAFFIC)

Many otter populations have vanished from parts of their former range, especially in northern Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, where illegal wildlife trade rages largely unchecked.

Habitat destruction and the threat of climate change only add to worries that otters may soon be extirpated from much of Southeast Asia. “Yet few people are aware of this, and still fewer people are trying to do anything about it,” said Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia Deputy Regional Director of the nonprofit conservation group TRAFFIC and a member of the Otter Specialist Group.

Duplaix agrees that the situation is dire, especially as middle class income in China and other Southeast Asian countries increases. “Money is no object, and they will pay until the last animal is gone,” she said. “There’s been a boom in demand that we’ve never seen before—it’s just incredible—and I think it’s going to get worse.”

The 11 baby otters, at least, will live. They will likely never be released back into the wild, however, since otters rely on their family groups for learning survival skills, which are lost once they break from their kin and enter captivity.

Instead, after undergoing a health check, the rescued otters will recuperate at the Bang-Pra Breeding Center in central Thailand, and may eventually find their way to zoos around the region. “Sadly, for most young animals that are confiscated from the black market, their future is one of captivity,” Shepherd said.

While Shepherd and his organization applauds the Thai authorities for saving this group of otters, he hopes they will take further steps to stop wildlife trafficking through their airport.

A trip to Bangkok’s Catuchak Weekend Market makes apparent just how daunting the situation is, with cages of illegal Madagascar tortoises, Indonesian birds and Papua turtles all lined up for sale, most of which arrived to the country by air. “Illegal traders rely on these central and efficient airports to carry out their illicit business,” Shepherd said. “International airports are the bottlenecks authorities need to focus on to cut trade routes and ultimately reduce the volume of wildlife smuggled by air.”

In this case, the culprits behind the kidnapped otters will likely get away with their crime. The bag holding the babies was unmarked and nondescript, and authorities have no leads. Even if the criminals were caught, they would likely escape with little more than a small fine since countries such as Thailand often do not view wildlife crimes as high priority.

“One key follow-up to cases like this is trying to maximize media coverage, as public awareness is absolutely key,” Shepherd said. “It is only through increased awareness and concern amongst the public that we will see a reduction in demand and, ultimately, a reduction in illegal trade.”