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