Otters at Risk in Asia
A new report from environmental organization TRAFFIC has found 6,000 otters were seized in Asia over the past 35 years and the group warns that the figure is but a fraction of the actual little-documented illegal trade.
The vast majority of the 167 enforcement cases from 15 Asian countries studied involved seizures of otter skins in China and India.
Illegal Otter Trade: An Analysis of Seizures in Selected Asian Countries (1980 – 2015) also found an increase in seizures of live otters destined for the pet market, marking a potentially rising threat to otter species in Asia.
Although numbers are small, in Southeast Asian countries the quantities of live otters seized increased in the last five years to average six individuals per seizure compared to three to four previously.
The study reveals a rise in the number of otter skin seizure cases over the years, but a decrease in the quantities being seized: from two to three cases a year averaging 50 individuals per seizure, to eight seizures a year of about 30 individuals each. More cases could mean an improvement in enforcement efforts, but the lower quantities seen in those seizures implied a decline in otter populations, says the report.
“Very little effort has been made in the past to tackle the illegal trade in otters here in Southeast Asia, largely due to ignorance of the situation and an overall lack of concern for low-profile species,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. “It is high time this group of species receive the conservation attention they so urgently deserve.”
The authors also reported that illegal trade records involving otters were scarce and that the trade was likely to be much larger than official seizure data alone suggested.
This, together with a lack of population information, legal loopholes that enable trafficking and the low priority given to otter trade, forms a large gap in information on the impacts of illegal trade on the region’s wild otter populations.
“What little we know is already setting off alarm bells. Further investigations, including into new trends like otter trade online, are critical if we are to understand the scope of the threats facing otters and take the necessary steps to protect them,” said Nicole Duplaix, Chair of the IUCN-SSC Otter Specialist Group.
The range of the Asian small-clawed otter encompasses southern and southeastern Asia, including areas of India, Indonesian islands, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, southern China and Palawan in the Philippines.
Otters reach sexual maturity at two to three years old but may not reproduce until five to seven years. Males of most species have little to no role after breeding; however, Asian small-clawed otters form large bonded families. Together the monogamous pair digs a den along a bank or uses another animal’s empty den.
Gestation lasts 60 to 64 days and typically results in two or three young, but can be up to six young. Both parents care for the tiny pups which are born toothless and with eyes closed. Males provide food for nursing females. By 40 days, the pups’ eyes open and by 60 days they actively swim.
The pair usually produces two litters each year. They remain together for life with the female as dominant partner. Older offspring help raise the young and stay until one parent dies when the extended family disbands. Groups usually contain eight to 12 individuals, but can include as few as four or as many as 30.