The international trade of endangered otters has been banned after Instagram popularity has been deemed responsible for an increase in poaching.

The smooth-coated otter found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and several other Asian countries is often spotted on social media feeds across the globe, along with the Asian small-clawed otter, a South and Southeast Asia native.

Owners of the semi-aquatic mammals regularly show off their unusual pets, in the form of viral videos and adorable photos showing otters being walked on leads and playing with toys. A number of otter cafes have even opened in Japan, where visitors can interact with the animals.

The international trade of endangered otters has been banned after Instagram popularity has been deemed responsible for an increase in poaching.

However, it’s feared that this social media trend has resulted in more otters being poached from the wild in order to meet the demands of the pet trade.

Nicole Duplaix, co-chair of the Otter Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told AFP the illegal trade in otters has ‘suddenly increased exponentially’.

The IUCN Red List labels both otter species as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction, with their population decreasing in the wild. Otter numbers have plummeted in the wild by at least 30 per cent in the past 30 years, according to France24.

In an attempt to help save the creatures, world leaders at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to ban the trade.

The vote for the smooth-skinned otter passed on Sunday, while the vote for the Asian small-clawed otter was passed on Monday (August 26).

Ecologists say the ban is of utmost importance in order to ensure the survival of the species.

Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at Humane Society International said:

A wide variety of threats is adversely affecting the Asian small-clawed otter in the wild, such as habitat loss, pollution, and the fur trade, but increasingly it is persecution for the pet trade that is proving its downfall.

This is the smallest and arguably the ‘cutest’ of all the otter species, and interest in them, fanned by photos and film on social media, means that a market for live pet animals has been swiftly growing in Asia.

With so much stacked against these otters, who are now classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, we are delighted that they will now benefit from this very welcome, precautionary agreement to give them the highest protection at CITES.

The two otter species in question were previously listed as threatened under CITES Appendix II, but will now be escalated to Appendix I.

Simmonds explained the new listing ‘effectively bans international trade for commercial purposes and removes one of the key threats that [otters] face.’

Wildlife expert Sumanth Bindumadhav said placing the otters in Appendix I will send the necessary message to the public, ‘in particular to online and social media audiences, that trade in them is detrimental to their welfare and survival’.

While both votes passed with an overwhelming majority, the decision needs to be ratified at the plenary session of the CITES conference later this week.