Four Asian otter species appear to have become increasingly targeted for the illegal pet and fur trades, according to a report issued this week by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

The report focused on four species: Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinereus), smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), hairy-nosed otters (Lutra sumatrana) and Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra). All four species are legally protected in most of their home nations. Only the hairy-nosed otters are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The rest are considered near threatened or vulnerable.

For this study TRAFFIC gathered information from a total of 167 seizures dating back to 1980, affecting nearly 6,000 otters during that time period. According to that data, the number of live animals rescued from smugglers has increased over the past five years, with each shipment averaging six otters. The researchers found that small-clawed and smooth-coated otters represented the bulk of the pet trade, with captured animals originating in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. They also uncovered evidence of a “flourishing online pet trade,” mostly via social media sites.

Meanwhile the total number of otter skins seized by customs officials has also increased. The number of skins per shipment has decreased, however, leading researchers to speculate that wild populations may be declining as a result of this illegal activity.

As with most wildlife trafficking, they express worry that this number is likely a fraction of the total number of poached and smuggled otters because it only counts the shipments that have been intercepted and properly recorded. The numbers also fail to accurately reflect exactly how the fur trade affects each of the four species since 83 percent of seizures only identified skins as generic “otter,” not as specific species.

TRAFFIC said another reason actual numbers may be much higher is because enforcement of otter-protection laws has been lax. “Very little effort has been made in the past to tackle the illegal trade in otters here in Southeast Asia, largely due to ignorance of the situation and an overall lack of concern for ‘low-profile species’,” Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a prepared statement. “It is high time this group of species receive the conservation attention they so urgently deserve.”

Although scientists have conducted a lot of research into the diet and other details for these four Asian otter species, there doesn’t appear to have been as much recent work conducted to study their wild populations. A notable exception is the Eurasian otter; a study published this past April found that their populations in northeast China have declined by 92 percent since the 1950s.

TRAFFIC is now calling for additional study into this problem to see if additional international trade restrictions should be put into place. They also hope that various national laws will be improved to reflect all otter species and that better reporting of otter seizures will take place in the future. Other recommendations include looking into human-offer conflicts, which too often result in dead animals, and increasing awareness among governments, NGOs and the general public to help conserve otters before this problem gets much worse.

Previously in Extinction Countdown: