Work­ing for wildlife: ot­ters

Be­ing cute and cud­dly can put species in se­ri­ous dan­ger, as Ben Yoxon from the In­ter­na­tional Ot­ter Sur­vival Fund (IOSF) ex­plains

World of Animals - - Contents -

We talk to the In­ter­na­tional ot­ter Sur­vival Fund about how be­ing cute and cud­dly can put a species in se­ri­ous dan­ger

What is the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion like for ot­ters?

Glob­ally there are 13 species of ot­ter, all of which are listed on the IUCN Red List; 12 have a de­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion and five are en­dan­gered. Ot­ters face a num­ber of se­ri­ous threats, in­clud­ing a lack of aware­ness, trade, habi­tat loss, pol­lu­tion and hu­man in­ter­fer­ence. Trade in ot­ters, both le­gal and il­le­gal, is hap­pen­ing across the world. In the US and Canada around 50,000 North Amer­i­can river ot­ters are killed an­nu­ally, and this is le­gal! In Asia, trade for fur, tra­di­tional medicines and, in­creas­ingly, pets is a ma­jor con­cern – for ev­ery tiger skin found there are at least ten ot­ter skins.

In the UK dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s ot­ter num­bers de­clined, and they be­came ex­tinct in many parts, largely due to pol­lu­tion from agri­cul­tural chem­i­cals and hunt­ing. Now our wa­ter­ways are cleaner and hunt­ing is banned they are start­ing to re­cover, although they only breed slowly. Peo­ple think they are now do­ing well in the UK be­cause signs are ap­pear­ing in many new ar­eas, but fig­ures are based on drop­pings, which only in­di­cate pres­ence and not num­bers. Eels are favourite prey items in fresh­wa­ter, but eel num­bers have de­clined by over 90 per cent in some ar­eas. If there is less prey then ot­ters have to travel fur­ther to find food, so their home range will in­crease and it can ap­pear as if there are more an­i­mals.

How is the pet trade af­fect­ing them?

Ot­ter trade has al­ways had a se­ri­ous ef­fect.

For gen­er­a­tions, hunt­ing ot­ters for their fur has been the main rea­son for il­le­gal trade, but now the pet trade is in­creas­ing. A re­cent re­port showed that on­line trade is grow­ing – 560 ad­verts of­fered nearly 1,000 ot­ters in the first four months of 2018 alone. Most records were from In­done­sia, but ad­verts were also found in Thai­land, Viet­nam and Malaysia. The mar­ket in Ja­pan is ex­pand­ing, and some ad­verts even of­fer to ship ot­ters to the US.

Ot­ters are also sold in open mar­kets, where an­i­mal wel­fare is of­ten a low pri­or­ity. These are mostly young Asian small-clawed ot­ters, although other Asian species (smooth-coated, Eurasian and hairy-nosed ot­ters) have been found. The an­i­mals are nearly all taken from the wild, of­ten in­volv­ing the death of the mother. Rear­ing ot­ters is not easy, so they of­ten die, and the owner sim­ply gets another one.

Has this al­ways been a prob­lem?

The pet trade has al­ways af­fected ot­ters but on a smaller scale. Now trade has started to boom. Videos of play­ful ot­ters are seen through in­ter­net plat­forms, and more re­cently, ‘ot­ter cafes’ have opened in Ja­pan where vis­i­tors can play with them, and this fu­els their de­sire to have their own. Ot­ters ap­pear to be the per­fect pet, but they’re wild an­i­mals. The pop­u­lar­ity of ot­ters as pets is grow­ing and this must stop!

What is IOSF do­ing to pro­tect ot­ters?

IOSF works on a num­ber of projects world­wide.

We carry out ot­ter sur­veys and work to re­duce ot­ter deaths on the road. We work with Cardiff Univer­sity to carry out post-mortem work on ot­ters and pol­lu­tion anal­y­sis. We have also acted as con­sul­tants for the Scot­tish Govern­ment.

At our Ot­ter Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre on the Isle of Skye, Scot­land, we have cared for over 200 in­jured and or­phaned ot­ters from the UK and Ire­land be­fore re­leas­ing them back to the wild. In 25 years we have es­tab­lished our­selves as one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts in ot­ter re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and have been ap­proached for help in 35 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Iraq, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo and Chile.

One of the ma­jor prob­lems fac­ing ot­ters is a lack of aware­ness. We work closely with our ex­ten­sive net­work on ed­u­ca­tion projects world­wide and visit schools to dis­cuss the im­por­tance of ot­ters and the en­vi­ron­ment. We pro­duce ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial on our web­site (www.ot­, like our World of Ot­ters in­ter­ac­tive map.

Rais­ing the pro­file of ot­ters and their con­ser­va­tion is at the fore­front of help­ing ot­ters in the long term. IOSF set up World Ot­ter Day, which is on the last Wed­nes­day of ev­ery May, to cre­ate aware­ness. World Ot­ter Day is grow­ing rapidly; this year peo­ple in over 25 coun­tries took part and there was a huge fol­low­ing through so­cial me­dia.

We also work on hu­man-ot­ter con­flict man­age­ment and ed­u­ca­tion. For ex­am­ple, we work closely with fishing com­mu­ni­ties to find pos­i­tive res­o­lu­tions to prob­lems with ot­ters, such as equip­ment dam­age, so fish­er­men can pro­tect their catch but do not harm ot­ters in the process.

IOSF is pas­sion­ate about re­duc­ing trade as it is hav­ing such mas­sive im­pli­ca­tions for ot­ters. Work­shops have been held in Asia and Africa cov­er­ing field tech­niques, pub­lic aware­ness, ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes and re­duc­ing trade to cre­ate new ot­ter work­ers who carry on ed­u­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion in their own country. Our work­shops aim to re­duce the trade, and we work closely with NGOs within prob­lem coun­tries on this is­sue. At the work­shops, net­works are formed to iden­tify fu­ture work, co-or­di­nate projects and share knowl­edge and ma­te­ri­als.

Why are you so com­mit­ted to their con­ser­va­tion?

Ot­ters are too of­ten over­looked in con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in favour of more fa­mous fauna, and yet they are vi­tal to a healthy and bal­anced en­vi­ron­ment. Ot­ters are at the top of the food chain and oc­cupy a va­ri­ety of habi­tats, both aquatic and ter­res­trial. The pres­ence of a healthy ot­ter pop­u­la­tion in­di­cates an en­vi­ron­ment where all species can thrive, in­clud­ing us.

From the out­set we es­tab­lished that not enough was be­ing done world­wide in re­la­tion to ot­ters and their con­ser­va­tion, de­spite be­ing in just as much need. We set out to change that. We want to pro­tect ot­ters so fu­ture gen­er­a­tions can en­joy one of the world’s most charm­ing mam­mals.

What can peo­ple do to help ot­ters?

As men­tioned, one of the big­gest prob­lems for ot­ters and ot­ter con­ser­va­tion is a lack of aware­ness. Ot­ters don’t have a voice, so it’s es­sen­tial that we speak up for them. We need as many peo­ple to voice their con­cerns for ot­ters and high­light their im­por­tance within the ecosys­tem.

Spread the word about ot­ters and the In­ter­na­tional Ot­ter Sur­vival Fund. You can help sup­port ot­ter con­ser­va­tion by do­nat­ing at

www.ot­ter­ or through Face­book (@ In­ter­na­tion­alOt­terSur­vivalFund). To­gether, we can make the dif­fer­ence.

“The pres­ence of a healthy ot­ter pop­u­la­tion in­di­cates an en­vi­ron­ment where all can thrive”

At the Ot­ter Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre, ot­ters are cared for un­til they can be re­leasedback into the wild

In the wild, ot­tersare play­ful and fas­ci­nat­ing to watchCute looks and adorable an­tics have made ot­ters pop­u­lar as pets

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