Popularity of pet otters on YouTube: Evidence of an emerging trade threat
Harrington LA., Macdonald DW., D’Cruze N.
Copyright Lauren A. Harrington et al. In response to growing reports of otters in the pet trade, and suggestions that the popularity of pet otters on social media may be driving demand, we collated YouTube videos of pet otters to test for trends in the number of videos published, their exposure (number of views) and popularity. We used English-language search terms to provide a global overview, as well as local language search terms for four South East Asian countries identified as being of potential importance in the pet otter trade (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam), and Japan. We found that not only had the number of videos depicting pet otters increased in the last two to three years (2016–2018), but that their popularity and/or engagement had also increased. Notwithstanding some country-level differences in the details of effects observed, the greatest increases in both the number of videos produced and their popularity occurred in Indonesia and Japan. At a global-level, commercial “viral” video sites appeared to be influential in terms of posting highly popular pet otter videos. At a national level, potentially influential videos tended to be produced by four or five individual otter owners. The appearance of phrases such as “I want one” in the comments section of the English-language videos, although not necessarily a statement of actual intent, suggests that these videos may be driving demand amongst their viewers and followers; similar analyses of video comments in each local language are warranted. Our results show an increase in social media activity that may not only be driving the apparent increase in popularity, but also amplifying awareness of the availability of these animals as pets, as well as creating and perpetuating the (erroneous) perception of otters as a suitable companion animal. At a global level, there are welfare concerns associated with otters in the pet trade, and, in South East Asia specifically, there are serious conservation concerns. We recommend increased regulation of these activities on social media, increased public awareness of the negative impacts of the pet trade on otters, and increased international protection. Specifically, we suggest the need to uplist both small-clawed and smooth-coated otters (Aonyx cinereus and Lutrogale perspicillata, respectively) to CITES Appendix 1.