After passing around a laminated sheet with warnings printed in Japanese, Mandarin and English ("Otters sometimes become violent"), a handler opened the cage. The animals bolted out and flew about the room, racing over laps and gobbling down kibbles.
Their tubular brown bodies felt like slick, furry throw pillows, and their animated, whisker-framed faces were like those of puppies. Selfies proved difficult: Throughout our 30-minute session, the otters never stopped moving.
Otters are smelly, loud and extremely active; they have sharp teeth and jaws strong enough to crack open shellfish. But in Japan, where more than a dozen animal cafes now feature otters, they have become sought-after exotic pets, displacing owls, slow lorises, sugar gliders and star tortoises.
Many cafes and pet shops sell otters to anyone interested in taking one home. "We're seeing a rapid increase in demand as the popularity of keeping otters as pets keeps growing," a cafe attendant told our group. "But the supply isn't catching up."
Pet otters aren't just big in Japan. They also are increasingly common in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. The internet has largely driven the "logarithmic increase" in their popularity and trade as pets, said Nicole Duplaix, a conservation biologist at Oregon State University and co-chairwoman of the otter committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Where are all of these pets coming from? Otters are difficult to breed in captivity without proper techniques. Many conservationists believe that the majority of animals sold as pets are captured in the wild.
Threatened smooth-coated otters and endangered hairy-nosed otters, both found in Southeast Asia, are sometimes caught up in the pet trade. But Asian small-clawed otters, a "terminally cute" threatened species, tend to be the primary targets for poachers, Duplaix said
A Respite From Record Losses, but Tropical Forests Are Still in Trouble 熱帶林消失趨緩 但仍危急
The years 2016 and 2017 were especially bad for the world's tropical forests as dry, hot weather led to widespread fires that, along with activities like clear-cutting for agriculture, resulted in record levels of forest destruction.
In all, about 30 million acres of tropical forest were lost in 2018, according to an analysis of satellite images released by Global Forest Watch, a program of environmental research group World Resources Institute. This is down from the highs of 42 million acres in 2016 and 39 million acres in 2017.
But the 2018 total is still the fourth highest since satellite analysis began in 2001. "If you look back over the last 18 years, it's clear that the overall trend is still upwards," said Frances Seymour, a fellow at the institute. "We're nowhere near winning this battle."
Of the 2018 total, close to 9 million acres (an area the size of Belgium), were old-growth, or primary, forest, which stores more carbon than other types of forests and provides habitat that is critical to maintaining biodiversity. The 9-million-acre total is the third highest since 2001.
"It seems that Indonesia's forest policies are working," said Mikaela Weisse, manager of the Global Forest Watch program. But the country will face a new test this year, Weisse said, as El Niño conditions may bring more warmth and dryness, increasing the risk of forest fires.
Indonesia's progress was more than offset by increases in forest loss elsewhere, including some African countries. Loss is becoming more decentralized, Weisse said. Where 15 years ago Indonesia and Brazil accounted for nearly three-quarters of forest loss worldwide, this year they account for less than half.
Forests, both in tropical and more temperate regions, play an important role in combating climate change, and estimates are that they are declining in size overall. A U.N. study, for example, found that worldwide forest coverage declined by about 3% between 1990 and 2015.
Forest health is linked to climate in two ways. Through photosynthesis, trees and other vegetation remove about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, so fewer trees mean more CO2 remains in the atmosphere. Dead trees also add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, releasing them when they are burned or decompose.