In the UK we are constantly hearing that otters are “everywhere”, but what exactly is the true situation?
The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) has become increasingly concerned about the decline of many species of otter in different countries and many governments are doing little or nothing about it. More and more effort goes into the conservation of large species and most of the major conservation organisations target high profile animals such as the panda, tiger, elephant and rhino, at the total expense of the smaller species. And yet for every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins and one haul in Tibet had 778 otter skins.
Otters worldwide are in severe trouble and no-one gives them a second thought. As recently as 2012, the Japanese otter was officially declared extinct, and of the 13 species that now inhabit our planet twelve are declining in numbers. In the IUCN Red List, five species are classed as “Endangered” and two are “Vulnerable”. This means that they are facing a “very high risk” or “high risk” of extinction in the wild. (IUCN otter Red Data status list – click to view )
Only the North American river otter is regarded as “stable” in spite of the fact that about 40,000 are trapped each year legally – no-one knows the scale of those caught “accidentally” we can assume it must be high if two were caught in Indiana in ten days by a teenager trapping for beaver.
Let’s take a look at our own Eurasian otter, the only species which we have in the UK. Overall, it is classed as “Near Threatened” but in Asia it is believed to be “Critically Endangered”. If we look at the facts we can see why. In parts of China it is almost extinct and in the Changbaishan Mountain Reserve numbers went down from 1.2 million in 1975 to just 4 in 2012 – that is a decline of over 99%. There have been no sightings of this species since the early 1990’s in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and most of India. We also have to remember that Asia forms about 80% of the geographical range of the Eurasian otter. People may consider it “safe” in Europe but it is declining in some areas here too, so there are very serious problems.
If we really want to conserve otters we have to create a greater awareness of otters and their importance in the ecosystem and demonstrate how vital they are in wetland habitats. They are the ideal environmental indicator species – they use both the land and water habitats and so it is essential that both are in pristine condition. This is important not just for otters but for all species, including our own.
One of the problems is that there are so few people working on otters and so IOSF has been holding a series of training workshop for students, park rangers and government officials to encourage the next generation of otter workers. In this way we can get reliable data on otters, encourage enforcement of legal protection and develop effective education/public awareness programmes within local communities. One of the outcomes of the workshops is a network of local otter workers who can share information and advice and can develop otter conservation programmes together.
In December 2014 IOSF held a training workshop in Bangladesh and the urgent need for conservation was brought home immediately when we saw the results of an oil spill in the Sundarbans, home to Asian small-clawed otters. 350,000 litres of oil were emptied into this pristine environment and at least two otters have already been found dead. But the long term effect will be greater. On the slopes of the mangroves which were once teeming with small crabs and mudskippers, great prey for the otters, there was now a film of oil and no signs of life.
The Sundabans is a truly wonderful environment with tiger, crocodile, the rare Ganges and Irrawaddy river dolphins, eagles, kites and egrets. The need for conservation has clearly increased with the oil spill and the increasing human pressure, but until now no-one had been looking at the otters. Now this will change and with the care of the Bangladeshi people the three species of otter that inhabit this truly remarkable place on our beautiful planet will continue to survive. The workshop was extremely positive and everyone was so inspired to do more for otters in their country. There is now a Bangladesh Otter Network to take things further and encourage more students to study otters and work on their conservation in this increasingly prosperous country. A priority is to investigate the status of the Eurasian otter as they have not been seen in Bangladesh since 1995.
This Bangladesh Otter Network will be a part of the new Asian Otter Conservation Network (AOCN), together with networks in Indonesia, India and Nepal. The effect of the AOCN will be from LOCAL TO GLOBAL as it will be administered by IOSF but will be run locally by each country network.
In Africa the situation is much the same with the main focus being on high profile species such as elephants and rhino. So in July 2015 IOSF held a training workshop at the Mweka College of Wildlife Management in Tanzania bringing together people from ten sub-Saharan countries. The college is responsible for training rangers throughout the African continent but even lecturers at the college were unaware that otters even exist in Africa – they have four species! An African Otter Network has now been set up to exchange information and new data is already coming in.
It is essential that governments and other conservation organisations take more notice of otters, consider them in their conservation programmes and enforce legal protection. It is our responsibility to preserve otters, wildlife and the environment for our children.