Home Magazines Conservation Water Dog – Otters On The Brink, In India And Beyond

Water Dog – Otters On The Brink, In India And Beyond

Water Dog – Otters On The Brink, In India And Beyond

Founded in 1993, the International Otter Survival Fund works to conserve otter species across the world. Founder and director Grace M. Yoxon shares with Sanctuary readers the many threats that otters face.

A smooth-coated otter feeds in the Cauvery river at Galibore in Karnataka. The species faces a wide range of threats including poaching, dynamite fishing, over-fishing and habitat destruction. Photo: Bharat Hegde/Entry – Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014.

I saw my very first wild otter on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, on a cold spring morning in 1985. She skillfully clambered onto a rock right in front of me and, from that moment, I was captivated. That first sighting led to a life-long commitment to otter conservation, and in 1993, my husband, Paul, and I set up the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF). Now nearly 20 years later, we have supporters in 32 countries and have supported projects in 30 countries. Our aim remains unchanged – to conserve all otter species of the world and their habitats. As part of our work we also run a specialist hospital where we care for orphaned and injured otters. Apart from abandoned cubs, we also nurture animals that have been hit by cars or caught in snares and fishing nets.

Working hands-on with individual animals and watching them in the wild drives home just how wonderful and important otters are. There are 13 species of otters in the world ranging from the tiny Asian small-clawed otter, which is so often seen in zoos, to the giant otter of South America, which is up to 1.8 m. long and eats caiman, anaconda and piranha! These lithe animals are found on every continent (except Antarctica and Australasia) and in a variety of habitats. They are great symbols of wetlands as they can be found in rivers, lakes, estuaries, canals and even on the coast. But they also use land, and so require terrestrial and aquatic habitats that are in excellent condition. They are therefore excellent ambassadors of a healthy environment, and it’s thus worrying that all 13 species are in trouble, and feature on the IUCN Red List.

In Asia, five of the 13 species are found and their Red List conservation status is as follows:

Eurasian otter Lutra lutra: Near Threatened

Smooth-coated otter Lutrogale perspicillata: Vulnerable

Asian small-clawed otter Aonyx cinerea: Vulnerable (upgraded from Near Threatened)

Hairy-nosed otter Lutra sumatrana: Endangered (upgraded from Data Deficient)

Sea otter Enhydra lutris: Endangered

A bevy of otters go about their day on the shores of the Kabini river in Karnataka. Photo: A.G. Gangadhar/Entry – Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2012.


People always think about high profile species, such as elephants, rhinos and tigers when they think about the global wildlife crime nexus. However, otters are major victims of the trade and otter pelts are nearly always found in any haul of tiger and leopard skins. Some estimates suggest that for every tiger skin found, there are at least 10 otter skins! In a single expropriation in Tibet, authorities once seized 778 otter skins. This included skins from the rare hairy-nosed otter, a species that was thought to be extinct in 1998 until small isolated populations were found in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Otter fur is often regarded as the ‘diamond’ of the fur business. Otters hunt mostly in water and rely on their fur to keep them warm. Evolution gifted otters an outer fur, which acts like a waterproof jacket that protects the soft, warm inner fur. This inner fur is amazing – in Eurasian otters there are 50,000 hairs/cm2, while the sea otter has an incredible 150,000 hair/cm2.  This, tragically, is what makes them so valuable to the fur market.

In February 2006, the Akin Companies Group approached us to ask if we could supply otter pelts to them. They requested catalogues and price lists, together with information on the size and quality of the furs. They also asked if the otters were farm-raised or not. We were horrified and immediately began to investigate and were shocked to discover the scale of the problem. In October 2007, Paul presented this issue at the IUCN Otter Specialist Group Colloquium in Korea. Later, Prof. Syed Anul Hussain of the Wildlife Institute of India told us that the situation was far worse than what we thought. Award-winning filmmaker, Syed Fayaz, has produced a documentary entitled And Then There Were None, which describes how otters have disappeared from Kashmir’s Wular Lake area. Otters face a similar fate in Uttarakhand and skins have been seized from regions as far as Kerala and West Bengal. These mustelids are now rarely seen outside Protected Areas such as Periyar, Corbett, Dudhwa, Kaziranga, Chambal, Bhitarkanika and Coringa.

It is estimated that at least 50 per cent of all seized otter skins are from India. No one knows the full effect of the fur trade on otter populations, but in India there is irrefutable evidence that this is driving these magnificent animals to localised extinction. In China, the situation is doubly serious.  Historical data indicates that in 1975, there were in the vicinity of 1,360,000 otters in the Changbaishan Mountain Nature Reserve in northeast China. By 1985, only 33 otters remained and by 2001-2009 there were less than four. A catastrophic decline!


Ironically, while demand for furs is driven by the rich, it is equally being fired by poverty. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL estimate that the overall value of the illegal wildlife trade exceeds US$200 billion. This money is used to support criminal and terrorist groups and also has a negative impact on the economy and social structure of communities. The most serious impact is on the poor as they are often the ones actually doing the hunting. Fishermen mistakenly see the otter as a competitor for their fish and so when the opportunity arises to get rid of the otter and earn some extra money, it is a lucrative choice for families stricken by poverty.

From the hunter to the market, there is a highly organised network of traders who may hide furs in fake gasoline tanks or use contacts within customs authorities to allow them to ship the contraband across the border. In 2005, the notorious Indian trader, Sansar Chand, was found to have supplied between 3,275 and 3,825 otter skins to eight different Nepalese and Tibetan buyers. A staggering increase from the 85 skins that he supplied to buyers in 1974.

Otters are major victims of the illegal wildlife trade and otter pelts are much in demand. Some estimates suggest that for every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins recovered! Photo Courtesy: Conservation International.


The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) have carried out various surveys of what is available for sale. They wrote an article in 2005 for the Times of India News Network entitled ‘Otters:  Dressed to Kill’ which stated, “They were everywhere.  In upscale shops in old Lhasa, on the streets of Linxia in China’s Gansu province and on the bodies of young men and women attending horse festivals in Tibet. But there’s one image – a young man wearing a traditional Tibetan dress embellished with six otter heads…

The main market appears to be in Tibet, where it is used to trim the national dress, the chupa. This is used for traditional events and is seen as a symbol of status. Linxia in Gansu Province, China, is the biggest market place and in 2005 a total of 1,833 otter skins were found openly on sale, all to embellish the chupa. While the Dalai Lama appealed to his people to use faux fur, the Chinese government made it compulsory to wear the real thing at festivals and formal events, with a penalty of a heavy fine or dismissal for a government official who doesn’t comply!


The fur trade is not restricted to Asia or Asian otter species. In America and Canada, there is a huge trade in furs, and this is largely “legal”. Each year about 40,000 river otters are trapped for the fur trade with the excuse that populations are large enough to sustain this pressure. In Indiana, the otter was extinct for over 50 years and then a five-year reintroduction programme was started in 1995. Now authorities say there are too many and they are causing a “problem” so they need to bring back trapping. Yet, Alejandro Galvan, manager of Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, said, “We do not survey the river otter population, so I cannot give an exact number; but they are very common on the refuge, and populations are healthy. At this point we have no indication that there is overpopulation at the refuge.” If they have no reliable data on actual numbers they cannot say if it is “sustainable”. This is not a unique situation – in 11 of the 20 states where otters have been introduced, it is already legal to trap them.

The IOSF does not care for such hypocrisy – how can the governments of developed countries condemn people in Asia, where the root cause of hunting is largely poverty, when they themselves authorise killings on this scale in the name of “sport” and “fashion”?


Sadly, there is a growing trend to keep live otters as exotic pets.  In January 2013, customs officials at Bangkok airport seized a suitcase containing 11 young otters – five Asian small-clawed and six smooth-coated. It is believed that they were to be smuggled to Japan to be sold as pets.

The problem is especially serious in Indonesia, where there are around 800 otter pet owners in Jakarta alone. Markets there almost always have live otter pups on sale and people trading in civets are now also selling otters.  Unfortunately, it seems as if the demand is only increasing. With the development of Internet sales, pups are even being advertised through Facebook and other such forums.

It is usually Asian small-clawed otters that are traded, as they naturally live in families and can come to regard their human keepers as their group.  Most of the animals are wild-caught and the female is often killed as she tries to protect her young. Even the hairy-nosed otter has been found to be kept as pets, but they usually don’t survive as they are more vulnerable.

The main market for otter fur appears to be in Tibet, where it is used to trim the national dress, the chupa. While the Dalai Lama appealed to his people to use faux fur, the Chinese government made it compulsory to wear the real thing at festivals and formal events.
Photo Courtesy: Belinda Wright/WPSI-EIA.


We have to work with communities, especially fishermen, so that people and otters can live and survive together.

At the end of 2012, IOSF funded a project by Apoorva Kulkarni, who looked at the socio-economics and conflicts between smooth-coated otters and fishermen in the Cauvery river, Karnataka. She wanted to understand the problem and its causes and see what could be done to help. She consulted the community and examined other threats including poaching, dynamite fishing and over-fishing.

She also worked with the local fishermen, including a man named Shivu, who became her field assistant, and is now monitoring the otters in the area on a regular basis. In 2013, she wrote to tell us: “A big achievement for me is that, on Otter Awareness Day, Shivu, was determined to start otter conservation in his community. So during his fishing hours, he camouflaged himself behind the grasses on an island to sight otters. To his delight, he sighted eight otters cross the river from one island to another and he happened to video shoot the entire event which is a very rare sighting in this region! He said to me that the video was a gift to me on my birthday and for my work on otters. He has promised to share the video with his fellow fishermen and explain to them the beauty of otters and their importance in the ecosystem.”

In Goa, Atul Borker, who founded Wild Abs to showcase the beauty of wildlife and emphasise the importance of otters, prioritises education and working with communities as the way forward.

Clearly, however, we must draw more attention to the otter trade. In parts of northern India, the otter is known as udbilao or pani ka kutta and it is regarded as “nobody’s child”.  No one seems to be concerned for its conservation. And since data on this trade is negligible, only the tip of the iceberg is visible.

This is why international collaboration, through organisations such as the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) and South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) – which has representatives from eight countries, namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is so vital.

IOSF has been organising a series of conservation biology workshops to train students and park rangers in the region on otter research field techniques, public awareness programmes, law enforcement and the wider conservation issues. Local government personnel also attend to encourage better law enforcement and otter protection. In March 2013, a workshop was held in Indonesia and this resulted in the establishment of an Indonesian Otter Network with representatives from the three islands of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo). They now work together to coordinate research and fight the pet trade.

An earlier workshop held in Cambodia in 2009 saw a local fisherman bringing in a hairy-nosed otter that had been caught in his nets. He could have sold it for up to US$200 but wanted to help with conservation. Evidently this approach can and does work.

At the most recent workshop held in Bangladesh on December 7-12, 2014, participants got together to establish the Bangladesh Otter Network. It is hoped that another workshop will take place in Lao PDR, which is an important route for illegal trade.

Otter networks are now present in Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Cambodia and hopefully there will soon be similar networks in Nepal and Thailand. The aim is to identify priorities for otter work and how these can be achieved and also encourage more legal enforcement and quick responses to animals which need help, such as confiscated pups. These networks are being linked by the Asian Otter Conservation Network which is being co-ordinated by IOSF. We would hope that these networks can grow and help each other to do more for otters in Asia.


Our aim is to protect and help the 13 species of otter worldwide, through a combination of compassion and science. IOSF supports projects to protect otters, which will also ensure that we have a healthy environment for all species, including our own.

Otter Hospital: On Skye, we care for injured and orphaned otters from throughout Britain and provide help and advice for people doing similar work worldwide.

Education: We run courses for people interested in otters and give talks to schools, natural history groups, etc.

Research: We carry out otter surveys and work to reduce otter deaths on roads.

Campaigns: Our major campaign is to combat the fur trade in Asia as described in this article.

International projects have included the Congo clawless otter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, spotted necked otter in Kenya, neotropical otter in Mexico, Asian small-clawed otter in Indonesia, and hairy-nosed otter in Cambodia.

For more information, visit www.otter.org


In 2007, Indian wildlife officials in Jammu & Kashmir burned 1,25,000 wildlife products worth US$2.5 million, including tiger, snow leopard, leopard and, of course, otter pelts. That was a good message to send out to the wildlife trade and other states have since followed. Enforcement is tentatively being taken more seriously and hopefully our workshops, which involve government officials, will speed up the process. To quote one example, in August 2007, two men in Yunnan Province, China were found guilty of buying one tiger and four otter skins in Myanmar. They were sentenced to 10 and five years imprisonment respectively.

Technology is providing new tools to assist the fight against wildlife crime. There is a new app called ‘Wildlife Witness’ that allows people who suspect such trading, to take a photo with the exact location and send it to TRAFFIC, who will then take the investigation further. A website called Wildleaks.org, has emerged as the first, secure, online whistle-blower platform dedicated to combatting wildlife crime. The site allows people to send anonymous information that can then be investigated and acted upon.

At the Bangladesh workshop it was pointed out that nine of the 13 species of otters worldwide are declining. Clearly, there is a lot more to be done, more attention needs to be drawn to wildlife crime. This is one of the key objectives of IOSF and we look forward to plugging into the far-reaching Sanctuary network to trigger action, without which we would not only find ourselves losing the tiger and leopard, but also the otter and the hundreds of lesser known species that are vanishing unnoticed and unmourned.


The harbourmaster at Kyle of Lochalsh, not far from Skye, had seen an otter which appeared to have something wrapped around his neck. He called us and we gave them a trap to try and catch it – they managed to catch cats and even other otters but not the one we wanted! This otter was clearly in a bad way and the harbourmaster said that if we didn’t catch it soon he would have to put it out of its misery. Luckily before that happened he was found in the hold of a fishing boat and they locked him in.  When we arrived they pushed us into the hold too and we found ourselves in the semi-dark looking for this poor animal. It wasn’t easy to get him into the carrying box. Eventually he was safely in and we rushed him to the vet. There we found the problem.  Around his neck was a small plastic cable tie with a diameter of about six centimetres. It had cut in deeply and his head was very swollen and his breathing was laboured. But otters are resilient and he quickly began to recover. Within a few weeks he was released back into the harbour and the fishermen were delighted to have him back. If it hadn’t been for them, he certainly would have died as he couldn’t hunt and had only managed to survive because they threw him pieces of fish.

Photo Courtesy: International Otter Survival Fund.

But the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks later we received a phone call to ask if we were radio-tracking otters about five miles from Kyle of Lochalsh. “No,” we said, asking “why?”  Back came the reply, “Well, there is an otter with a collar on and we wondered if it was one of yours.” It turned out that it wasn’t a collar at all – it was where the hair hadn’t grown back around Kyle’s neck and he was now fishing happily in his own home range!

Author: Grace M. Yoxon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.


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