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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rare otters find refuge in Tonle Sap

Rare otters find refuge in Tonle Sap


Photo supplied by Conservation International

A rare colony of hairy-nosed otters, believed until recently to be extinct, may gain

protection if plans to expand a fish sanctuary in the Tonle Sap Lake go ahead, officials


The Kampong Prak fish sanctuary in Pursat province covers 3,954 hectares, but a joint

project between the Fishery Administration (FIA) and Conservation International (CI)

set to begin in March this year will extend the protected area to up to 20,000 hectares,

including large areas of flooded forest within which two species of otter can be


"The fish sanctuary is currently only open water," said Prum Sitha, deputy

director of the fisheries domain and extension division of the FIA. "It is very

important that we expand to protect the flooded forest habitat for both fish and

many other species."

Sitha explained that the sanctuary was established to protect the flooded forest

as a breeding ground for fish. The area is rich in other forms of wildlife. Protecting

the area will not only help preserve fish species but also endangered animals including

birds, turtles, fishing cats and two species of highly threatened otter, he said.

CI has already raised much of the funding needed to expand the area. Deputy regional

director David Emmett believes the discovery of these rare otters in the region will

help raise more funds.

"People have an affinity with this playful, charismatic animal but no one thinks

about them as endangered. This could become a flagship species for conservation of

the area," he said.

The hairy-nosed otter was believed to be extinct for many years until several small

populations were found in Southeast Asia -the most significant site being the flooded

forests of Tonle Sap Lake.

Currently, the hairy-nosed otter is not included on the International Union for Conservation

of Nature's (IUCN) red list because it was thought to be extinct already, but Annette

Olsson who heads Conservation International's otter conservation project in Cambodia

said their status is under review and should gain a listing as highly endangered

by July this year.

Four of the 13 species of otter are believed to exist in Cambodia. The smooth-coated

otter, also threatened by extinction, can be found in the proposed protection area

and would likewise benefit from the sanctuary. Popular within the fur trade as the

name may suggest, it is hunted mercilessly throughout the region. Wild populations

of the Asian small clawed otters, the most common species to be found in zoos worldwide,

are also under threat internationally, while the Eurasian otter population is threatened

locally but numbers are increasing in Europe.

In the Tonle Sap, otters are hunted not only for their skins but are also at risk

due to their reputation as pests, Olsson said. Poor fishermen often have their equipment

destroyed as otters break their fishing nets and traps, and steal their catch.

Fur dealers, meanwhile, provide traps and offer payment for furs-an offer hard to

resist for a struggling fishermen.

One fisherman and otter hunter interviewed by Conservation International four months

ago provided figures on his catches. In 2003 he trapped 16 otters, in 2004 13 and

2005 12. In 2006, he caught eight and at the time of the interview had caught one

otter in 2007.

Research into the number of furs being traded or the number of otters remaining is

not yet conclusive but these figures are from just one of hundreds of fisherman in

the region. Each year the number of catches has dropped, likely along with the otter


Demand for furs comes from the cold climate of northern China and from Tibet where

their pelts form part of the Tibetan national dress, said Olsson. Recently in Linxia,

China, 1,833 otter skins were found on sale while in Lhasa, Tibet, customs officials

seized 778 skins from a single shipment.

Olsson said otter meat is also eaten locally and some parts are used in traditional


In the protected fishing area, FIA rangers last month removed 1,300 meters of illegal

fishing nets, seized 25 endangered baby turtles and removed numerous otter traps.

CI has been researching the Cambodian otter population for the past 18 months with

funding from Walt Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund. In December, Scottish foundation

Furget Me Not launched a joint campaign with CI aimed at raising awareness within

the community, promoting alternatives to otter hunting and training government rangers

how to deal with wildlife crime.

Currently, the only captive hairy-nosed otter in the world is at Phnom Tamao Zoo,

Phnom Penh (pictured here). "For endangered species we like to have what we

call assurance colonies - colonies breeding within zoos in case they become extinct

in the wild," said Emmet of CI. "But for the hairy nosed-otter there is

only this one male in captivity."

Still, there are positive signs. Fauna and Flora International camera traps recently

captured an image of one of these otters in the Cardamom Mountain suggesting there

may be more colonies yet to be discovered. CI is currently monitoring the area for

more information.



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