Urgent global action must be taken to save the world’s otters before some species are lost for ever, according to Scottish-based conservationists.
Nine of the world’s 13 otter species are declining, some critically, and many countries have already reported local extinctions.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List for threatened species classifies five as endangered and two as vulnerable.
While road-kill is the key threat to Scottish otters, illegal poaching is decimating populations across Asia. Otter pelts are highly valued by the fur trade and form an integral part of the Tibetan national costume, while body parts are traded for use in traditional medicines.
There has also been an increase in trapping and trafficking of live animals, due to a craze for exotic pets. The problem is particularly serious in Indonesia, where there are 800 otter owners in Jakarta alone.
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Now the founders of the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF), on the Isle of Skye, say worldwide conservation efforts must recognise the plight of smaller, less iconic animals alongside the bigger and better-known tigers, pandas, elephants and rhinos.
Dr Paul Yoxon and his wife Grace set up the charity in 1993 and run a national rescue centre for otters in the village of Broadford.
The UK has just one native species, the Eurasian otter, which is found across Europe, Asia and Africa. European protection laws and successful conservation measures have seen numbers in Scotland increasing in recent years. Overall it is “near-threatened” but it is believed to be critically endangered in Asia.
The otter has disappeared from many traditional strongholds. It was declared extinct in Japan in 2012 and has almost vanished in parts of China – numbers in the Changbaishan mountain reserve plummeted from 1.2 million in 1975 to four in 2012. There have been no sightings in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and most of India since the early 1990s.
This is particularly worrying for conservationists, as Asia comprises 80 per cent of the geographical range for the Eurasian otter.
The IOSF has been working in several countries to reverse the trend. The Yoxons recently visited Japan to advise on a reintroduction programme and have just carried out workshops in Bangladesh. Later this year they head to Tanzania to provide training for rangers.
Grace Yoxon said: “Now in Asia they are starting to wake up to the fact there are otters. People are aware of otters a little bit more in Bangladesh because there are a few villages that still use them for fishing.
“They have tame ones, three in a team. The otters are let loose in the river and they herd the fish into the nets, then the fishermen feed the otters so everyone is happy. But people don’t think of the wild ones, that they are in difficulty. They don’t realise what’s going on. The fur trade is horrendous.”
Paul Yoxon said the charity’s visit to Bangladesh took place in the wake of a major oil tanker spill at the Unesco world heritage site at Sundarbansm, and there was now a push for otter conservation. Surveys are due to be carried out after reports of recent sightings in the north of the country. This is good news for the Eurasian otter, which has not been seen in Bangladesh for 20 years.
Professor Padma de Silva, the Sri Lanka-based chair of the Asian Otter Conservation Network, coordinated by the IOSF, said the Skye-based charity had been “very instrumental” in gradual changes across the continent.