Hairy-Nosed Otter Discovery Boosts Species’ Survival Hopes

Pulled from the waters of the Tonle Sap lake, the discovery of a rare female hairy-nosed otter has renewed hopes of establishing a breeding program to safeguard the endangered species from extinction.

Found on March 5 caught on the hook of a fishing line, the otter has been living in captivity at Phnom Tamao Zoological Gar­den and Wildlife Rescue Center after undergoing a medical check­up and treatment for some minor wounds.

The Takeo province wildlife re­fuge already has a male otter that was rescued in Dec 2007 after a fisherman killed its mother in the Tonle Sap lake. The male, named Dara, meaning “precious” or “star,” lives in a private enclosure at Phnom Tamao and, until last week, was the world’s only hairy-nosed otter in captivity.

“We mostly see them as skins, and then it is too late,” said An­nette Olsson, research manager for Conservation International, the group caring for the otter.

Since little is known about the mating habits of the species, Ol­s­son said caretakers will wait several months before introducing Dara into the female’s enclosure, making sure she is first healthy and adjusted to her new surroundings. Even then, it’s uncertain whe­ther the pair will breed.

“You can never be sure,” Ol­sson said, adding that most spe­cies of otters mate once a year and produce anywhere be­tween one to four offspring each preg­nan­cy. “No one has tried it for this species. But it’s worth a go,” she added.

Taking its name from the small, soft whiskers on its nose, the freshwater otter is known to inhabit the seasonally flooded forest around the Tonle Sap as well as the rivers and swamps of Mal­ay­sia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Although exact figures are difficult to determine, the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are few­er than 1,000 hairy-nosed otters alive in the world, and that the population is on the decline.

Illegal fur traders have helped decimate the otter population by poaching the animal and selling its pelt or using its organs to make traditional medicines. The destruction of the otter’s natural hab­itat by man has also contributed to its descent.

David Emmett, Cambodia’s re­gional director for Conservation In­­ter­national, said dams built along or planned for the Mekong River disrupt the flow of water to the Tonle Sap lake and, in turn, devastate the otter’s habitat of in­undated forests. Global warming, he said, would only compound the problem.

“It means the Tonle Sap would­n’t flood in the same way it used to,” he said. “We think the otters might be a good indicator of the health of the area.”


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