An investigation by World Animal Protection has revealed a surprising rise in the illegal trade of otters across Japan.

The animal advocacy non-profit discovered illegal hunting, trafficking and farming of the cute marine mammals is on the rise in Japan, Thailand and Indonesia. This appears to be in response to the growing demand for the animals as pets.

The group blames the surge in demand for otters in 'animal cafes' fuelled by Japanese social media.

The animal cafe is one of Tokyo's more bizarre café subcultures, with shops featuring live animal petting zoos.

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Businesses such as the Harry: Zoo Café in Harajuku advertise using animals as a way to encourage patrons into their shops.

The promise of a cuddly animal with your coffee has proven to be a hugely successful proposition in urban Japan.

A customer holds a small hedgehog at the Harry Hedgehog cafe in Tokyo. Photo / Getty Images
A customer holds a small hedgehog at the Harry Hedgehog cafe in Tokyo. Photo / Getty Images

There have been cafes devoted to dogs, cats and even hedgehogs.

However, otters are just the latest cute animal 'flavour of the month'.

"At HARRY, you can play with cute animals. We welcome you to come see our Hedgehog Cafe. Animals with individuality, including Hedgehogs and others, are waiting for your visit," reads an advert for the Tokyo shop. "Our animals are also for sale"

The Harry store in Harajuku has found the otters to be enormously popular with both Japanese and foreign visitors.

In spite of the small-claw otters being on the conservation Red List, banning corss border trade, the store told Kyodo News that their animals have been "legally bred and purchased in Japan."

There are more than a dozen cafes advertising otters as a table side attraction in Tokyo.

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But, World Animal Protection has called out many of these businesses over the welfare of the animals in their care.

The animals are often kept in conditions that are far too cramped and lack natural light.

"The otters are sadly heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them," World Animal Protection told The Herald.

Otters are described as displaying symptoms of being traumatised by their surroundings, biting their claws and looking for escape.

"Just because a wild animal is cute, it does not mean you should take it home with you," says Cassandra Koenen of Wildlife not Pets.

"Once otters are in people's homes, there is no realistic way to replicate the space and freedom these animals would have in the wild. Many animals are kept in spaces vastly smaller than their natural habitats and they don't have the correct nutrition, even if owners have their best intentions to feed them properly."

Customers wait outside the Bunny Cafe in Tokyo's Roppongi district. Photo / Nicolas Datiche
Customers wait outside the Bunny Cafe in Tokyo's Roppongi district. Photo / Nicolas Datiche

The extremely cute Asian small-clawed otter is also extremely endangered.
The sudden spike in otter trafficking might prove to be the final blow to the increasingly rare animals.

The species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as at risk of extinction in the wild. Along with Eurasian Otter, the Hairy-nosed Otter and the Smooth-coated Otter – the IUCNR described "the illegal wildlife trade poses a direct threat to all four species."

World animal protection is urging people not to patronise businesses selling or using otters to attract custom, saying these "animals are not pets, they belong in the wild."

The Harry Zoo Cafe in Tokyo has been contacted for comment.