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Otter gets new digs at Phnom Tamao Zoo

Otter gets new digs at Phnom Tamao Zoo

20-Otter-IMG_9133.jpg
20-Otter-IMG_9133.jpg

TRACEY SHELTON

Dara, the world’s only hairy-nosed otter in captivity, enjoys his new enclosure at the Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Center in Takeo province, after spending more than a year in quarantine.

Dara, the world's only captive hairy-nosed otter, is settling in happily at his new $6,500 home at Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Center in Takeo province after spending more than a year there in quarantine.

In a ceremony on June 17, monks chanted a blessing to welcome Dara to the 10- by 15-meter enclosure, which has a pond, trees, shrubs, logs and a den.

"This is the first time he has seen vegetation in years," said Annette Olsson, of US-based Conservation International, as a delighted Dara frolicked on the grass while he explored the enclosure.

"He's been kept in a concrete enclosure in quarantine here since his arrival," said Olsson, the research and monitoring manager in Cambodia for CI, which has several otter projects in the kingdom and funded the new enclosure in partnership with the International Otter Survival Fund, a British group.

Nhek Ratanapich, the zoo's director, said Dara was in poor health when he was taken there by animal rescue workers in May last year after the closure of the Angkor Zoo at Siem Reap in 2007 following years of complaints from visitors and wildlife workers.

A report made by the conservation group WildAid who inspected the zoo in 2006 described the conditions of the otter cage that then housed Dara as small, dirty and having no shelter. 

‘The cages are at best hopelessly inadequate, at worst downright cruel," the report said. "As it stands Angkor Zoo is cruel and squalid. It detracts from the quality of the setting and demeans the historical World Heritage site in which it is situated."

At the zoo's closure, Dara was found in a grimy pond littered with rubbish. As he barked pleadingly up at the passing officers, animal husbandry specialist Nick Marx who was part of the government/WildAid law enforcement team that secured the zoo, explained that otters are highly social creatures and to keep one alone and void of contact is unkind.

"When he first arrived, he would just lie in his cage. He didn't play like this. He wasn't really active at all," said Ratanapich at this month's ceremony.

When he first

arrived, he would

just lie in his cage.

He didn’t play like this. He wasn’t really

active at all.

"I'm so happy to see him enjoy his new surroundings," said Ratanapich, as he watched Dara edging his way apprehensively into the unfamiliar pond, where the frisky animal was soon performing back flips.
"I'm glad he remembers how to swim," said Ratanapich, with a laugh. "At first I was worried he might drown."

The next challenge for the Phnom Tamao zoo is to find Dara a wife. A call has gone out to wildlife rescue workers who often confiscate otters kept illegally as pets. Olsson said that if a female is found, the couple will hopefully become the foundation of the only captive breeding program for one of the world's rarest mammals.

Hairy-nosed otters were thought to be extinct until some were detected in Vietnam and Thailand in 2000, and the largest population has since been discovered at the Tonle Sap.

But the Tonle Sap otters are under threat from the illegal trade in furs and traditional medicine, and from fisherman who regard them as pests because the animals often raid nets and take their catch. Fur traders provide fishermen with traps and buy the pelts of any animals they catch.

Conservation International and the Fishery Administration are working together to expand the Kampong Prak fish sanctuary at the Tonle Sap to include tracts of flooded forests, a preferred habitat of the otter and other endangered birds, animals and fish.

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