There are four species of otter in Asia but they are all vanishing fast:
Smooth-coated otter(Lutra perspicillata): “Vulnerable” with an urgent need for conservation action to prevent extinction.
Hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana): “Endangered”, probably the world’s rarest otter. It was believed to be extinct in 1998 until a few isolated and highly threatened populations were found.
Asian short-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus): Recently up-listed to “Vulnerable” as it has been hunted extensively throughout Asia.
Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra): “Near Threatened”. This species is also found in Europe, but it is under severe threat in the Asian part of its range.
All of these species are threatened through degradation of wetlands, depletion of food sources, and hunting for the fur trade. Otters are being harvested in the hundreds throughout the region as their fur demands a high price in the illegal wildlife trade.
Young otters are also taken from the wild as pets but they often die due to insufficient care. If they do survive they may be kept until they are large enough to fetch a good price for the skin.
In many places otters are seen as pests because they eat fish caught in fishing nets and destroy the nets. Many people are very poor and depend on fishing for their livelihoods, so such losses can have a serious impact on their lives. Pest control and the skin trade are the main driver of hunting.
The Fur Trade
Otters are one of the most overlooked, although one of the most charismatic, medium-sized mammal species in Asia. They are also an important ambassador to the health of the environment as they use both the terrestrial and aquatic environments. Yet otters are at the forefront of the wildlife trade in SE Asia, along with tigers and leopards. Indeed, for every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins and one haul in Tibet had 778 otter skins, including some from the hairy-nosed otter (photo below).
For any conservation programme to be successful it must be founded on recent sound scientific data obtained by trained professional researchers. In Asia there are very few scientists working on otters and their habitats and IOSF will provide a workshop in Indonesia to train students from throughout south-east Asia in otter field techniques, public awareness programmes, law enforcement and general conservation issues. Local government personnel will be invited to attend to encourage better law enforcement and otter protection. A similar workshop in Cambodia in 2009 was extremely successful and its impact is ongoing in the community. This led to the demand for workshops in other parts of Asia.
The workshop will take place in spring 2013 and 30 students will be trained so that they can then carry out their own research and education programmes. Instructors will be drawn from IOSF and the IUCN Otter Specialists Group and they will provide their time for free.
IOSF Report on the Illegal Trade in Otters, 2014
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The Pet Trade
In Indonesia there is a considerable trade in otters for the pet trade. A study of Indonesian online markets from January to May 2012 recorded 63 advertisements by 46 sellers and each advert involved 1 to 4 cubs, (average 1.58). Most of the otters are wild-caught Asian short-clawed otters or smooth-coated otters but there are also cases of the rare hairy-nosed otter being sold. Often the mother is killed in order to capture the cubs.
IOSF was a founder member of Supportive Environments for the Region’s Otters (SERO), a non profit network of animal conservation and welfare professionals with special concern for Asian otters. Members of SERO have developed a good relationship with Otter Lovers Indonesia who hold regular meetings for people with otters. Our aim is to encourage better care of existing otters which are being kept as pets and to discourage taking otters from the wild. Where the conditions in which the otter is being kept are totally unsuitable we aim to remove it to a centre where it can be cared for properly. Cikananga Wildlife Rescue Centre already has three Asian short-clawed otters and is keen to set up a programme of rehabilitation and release for otters. Any otters which are considered unable to be released can be cared for at the Centre. As part of the programme Cikananga intend to carry out a comparative behavioural study of Asian short-clawed otters in the wild and in captivity.
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Since 2008 IOSF has been supporting the work of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here they are caring for one hairy-nosed otter, Pursat, and a group of smooth-coated otters.
Hairy-nosed otters are very susceptible to poor water quality. As a result freshwater has to be brought 40 km from Phnom Penh to the Centre every day for Pursat’s pool. A new enclosure was recently built for him with a much bigger area and pool. Fresh fish also has to be bought at a cost of about £4,000 per year.
Phnom Tamao receives many visitors and these otters are acting as an ambassador for all otters. Otters are frequently seen as a pest or hunted for their pelts, especially by poor fishermen. A programme of public awareness has been successful in encouraging local communities to report otters rather than just killing them.
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Otter Identification Cards
Many local people say they have seen otters but do not know which species and when questioned they cannot be certain if it actually was an otter. Education is vital if these people are to become aware and concerned about conservation.
At present sightings cannot be confirmed as otters, but if their existence can be proven it would provide valuable data regarding species distribution. By using these records it would also encourage the people to report more and become more active in conservation.
IOSF has already produced otter identification cards for Indonesia, Nepal (seen below) and Pakistan which can be used in the field by rangers and field researchers. These have a standard format which can be translated into different Asian languages. The cards are two-sided A4 and laminated so that they are long-lasting and can be used in the field. On one side are illustrations of the otter species of the area and other species which are sometimes confused with otters, such as genet. On the back is brief information about each otter species and about otters in general including their importance to biodiversity and as an environmental indicator, and threats.
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