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
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.otter.org), 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.ottershop.co.uk 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