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.”