What is the social/environmental problem/issue that this project will address?
Otters are such great ambassadors to a healthy environment – they are at the top of the food chain and use both the land and water, so both habitats have to be in pristine condition – this is important for all species, including our own.
Many pollutants have now been banned but chemicals like PCBs are still being found in the environment 30 years later. There are also new chemicals and we do not know the cocktail effect from the combination of different chemicals in the environment.
As the human population increases it squeezes the habitat available for wildlife. Many otters in Britain die on the road. Otter cubs stay with their mum for over a year and so if she is killed they will simply not survive unless taken into care.
And hunting is a particularly serious problem in Asia, as otter fur is regarded as the “diamond” because of its superb quality. This is largely driven by poverty as poor fishermen seek to earn a bit more for their family and at the same time remove a competitor for the fish.
In Africa they are hunted for bushmeat and traditional medicines but many conservationists don’t even know they exist!
Otter fur and body parts for sale in Morocco © Vincent Nijman
Can you give us some statistics on this problem?
Post mortems on otters monitor the health of the population and show pollution levels and other potential threats not only to otters but to the environment as a whole. This research has shown that few otters in England and Wales are living beyond 4 years of age and the oldest was 8. In Germany and the Czech Republic they are living to 15 – WHY?
The illegal trade in otters is huge but people always focus on high profile species such as tiger and elephant. And yet for every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins and one haul in Tibet had 778 otter skins. They are also taken from the wild as pets, particularly in countries like Indonesia and Thailand. They usually kill the mother to get the cubs which often die as they aren't cared for properly, so they go for another one. This is clearly having a drastic effect on otter populations. In the Changbaishan Mountain Nature Reserve in China, otters have declined by 99%. Even the little Asian small-clawed otter is disappearing rapidly. We have to do something and quickly.
778 otter skins in Tibet © Conservation International
What is your solution?
For otters in the UK we have to make people aware that they are not “everywhere” as we are led to believe in the media. There are about only 10,000 otters in Britain and yet many fishermen claim there are “lots” and that they are eating all the fish. One problem is the 95% decline in eels, which are a popular food for otters. So we are supporting an eel-restocking programme.
It is important to involve communities in any conservation work as it will only work with the support of the people. In areas where there is conflict between otters and fishermen it is vital to meet personally in order to understand the extent of the problem. By working with the community it is possible to find solutions to problems together.
But we need trained people to do this. So IOSF has been holding a series of training workshops in Asia and now has an Asian Otter Conservation Network linking people together to share experience and education materials. Local government personnel are also invited to attend the workshops to encourage better law enforcement and otter protection. The first African workshop was held in Tanzania in July 2015 and there is now also an African Otters Network.
In Africa we need more community education and research to see exactly what the situation is with otter populations.
Education work in Tanzania Education work in Tanzania
A new otter-lover in Bangladesh
How will you deliver this?
We have a specialist otter hospital caring for orphaned and injured otters and provide help and advice worldwide for other people doing the same. We have to keep the cubs until they are the same age as they would naturally leave their mother. But we also have to keep them wild as otherwise they cannot be released.
The Year of the Otter will draw more attention to the problems faced by otters in the UK and worldwide and we will raise more funds for projects such as eel-restocking and keeping otters off the road.
Our next training workshop will be held in China in September 2016 - this will be a real challenge as many of the otter furs end up in Tibet.
In Africa we have people on the ground now who are ready to do education work and carry out research but we just need the funds to do it.
Otters in care at the IOSF hospital
Training new otter workers in Indonesia