Is 2016 the year of the otter?

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An international charity based on the Isle of Skye is hoping to raise awareness of the otter skin trade - which often outnumber other animals furs, such as tigers, 10 to one.

Set up in 1993, the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) was launched to protect the 13 species of otter worldwide, through a combination of education and science.

Of the 13 species of otter, 12 are currently in decline and the IOSF is are the frontline, spending a lot of time educating locals in Africa and Asia.

In July 2015 IOSF organised a training workshop at the Mweka College of Wildlife Management in Tanzania with participants from ten sub-Saharan countries.

Dr Paul Yoxon, IOSF’s Head of Operations, said: “So little is known about otters in Africa that a lecturer at the college told us ‘We don’t have otters in Africa’, even though they have four species. The workshop was a great success and we now have an African Otter Network and new information is already coming in.”

In Asia, there has been a sharp decline, mostly due to lack of wetlands but also lack of awareness, which then leads to a lack of funding for research, education and conservation.

Otters are one of Asia’s most overlooked medium-sized mammals, yet they are at the forefront of the illegal wildlife trade together with tigers and leopards – for every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins and one haul in Lhasa found 778 otter skins.

Grace Yoxon, of IOSF, said: “The whole focus is always on high profile species such as lion, rhino and elephant and the otter is simply overlooked. The Mweka College is responsible for training most rangers throughout the continent so if they don’t know otter exist, how are the rangers going to find out?”

In some parts of Asia, otters (particularly Asian small-clawed otters) are taken from the wild for the pet trade and many of these are kept in terrible conditions and die. This trade is threatening the survival of otters and in some areas they have become locally extinct.

Trafficking in otters for furs, body parts and pets is rarely discussed in Asia, and yet it is having a serious effect on populations and local ecosystems. Apart from in more arid provinces, China’s otter population used to be widespread but now they are found in only 15 of the 35 divisions and they are rare in nine of these.

In the Changbaishan Mountain Nature Reserve they have declined by 99%. IOSF will venture into China for a workshop in 2016, aimed at rangers and government officials to combat the illegal trade in otter skins and to champion otter conservation. IOSF have already organised similar training workshops in Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh but this is a first for China. The workshop will be held at Chimelong National Park and this has already been approved by the Board of the Park and has the financial support of the Danish Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation.

Workshop participants will already know the links between illegal trade and poverty. In addition to global threats to wildlife (habitat loss, pollution, climate change, etc) otters also face conflict with fishermen as they can take fish and damage nets - expensive losses to a poor family dependent on fishing. If people can earn a substantial amount by selling the animal it is a great incentive, especially as it also removes this competition. It is therefore important for trained people to help resolve conflicts and if necessary encourage other otter-friendly livelihoods. Emphasis will be on working with communities to help them understand the precarious position of otters and develop alternative livelihoods in return for banning otter hunting and trade.

Otter skin is so popular is because of the fur quality. The otter has two types of fur - an inner fur which keeps it warm and an outer layer which is waterproof and protects the inner fur. The inner fur has an incredible number of hairs - about 50,000 per square centimetre (sea otters have about 100,000 per square centimetre). So the otter is sometimes referred to as the diamond of the fur trade.

The skins are largely used in Tibet for the traditional dress although there is an increasing market in fur for hats in China.

IOSF already has country networks in many Asian countries which link together as the Asian Otter Conservation Network. This enables people to exchange information and education material through cross-border co-operation.

Prof Padma de Silva, from Sri Lanka is Chair of the Asian Otter Conservation Network, said: “This is a really exciting project for us and will draw a lot of awareness to the precarious state of otters in China. The Board at Chimelong have been very supportive and are keen to develop a long-lasting education programme on otters in their park. This will lead to more active conservation of otters and their wetland habitats.”

Ms Yoxon added: “The main outcome of the campaign is to make people more aware of the problems faced by the otters of the world. Otters are an important part of our ecosystem and are an ambassador to our environment. As they are at the peak of the food chain and use both the land and water it is essential that both habitats are in good condition. This is clearly important for all species, including man. It has been shown that where otters have disappeared it has a profound effect on wetland biodiversity.”