It was a good day.
As Buddhist monks crouched and chanted blessings, Dara, a rare hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana), entered his new home for the first time. Annette Olsson, Research and Monitoring Manager for CI-Cambodia, described Dara as “very calm and curious” as he explored his new private breeding enclosure at the Phnom Tamau Zoo.
It was also a day that might not have occurred.
Dara, whose name means “precious” and “star” in Khmer, represents a great hope and opportunity for his species. Once thought to be extinct, hairy-nosed otters survive in only a few regions of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Sumatra, and their numbers remain unknown. They are increasingly killed for traditional medicines, and traders often provide free traps to help locals capture and kill the otters for their fur. In the Tonle Sap region north of Phnom Phen, otters sometimes break fishermen’s nets and traps, and steal the catch; to many locals, they are considered pests. Loss of habitat, due in part to impacts from global climate change, is another growing threat.
Tonle Sap Lake
The monks’ blessings – a Cambodian tradition – mark a new start for Dara. The young otter was rescued after his mother was killed by a local fisherman on Tonle Sap Lake. The fisherman, a local, had been keeping him as a pet.
Nearly 4,000 hectares of Tonle Sap are already protected as part of the Kampong Prak fish sanctuary, but because the otters’ flooded forest habitat is not protected, and could be affected by changing river and water flows caused by climate change, Conservation International (CI) and Cambodia’s Fishery Administration are working together to extend the sanctuary by up to 20,000 hectares. The expansion will include large areas of flooded forests where hairy-nosed otters are known to exist.
Somanak Peov, a Biodiversity Monitoring and Research specialist working with CI and Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, calls the flooded forest and other lakeside forests “the best place for wildlife nesting, feeding and resting.”
Accordingly, CI has initiated a series of activities to protect the otters at Tonle Sap: Significant research and monitoring is being paired with training, education, and discussion groups with local fishing communities. “Most of the fisherman live on floating houses, in floating villages,” says Somanak. “The people are very skilled at fishing, diving and hunting, including otters.” After further assessment, a community ranger program may be launched.
A Rare Opportunity
Dara could both inspire protection of other otters and be the first of a captive breeding pool. CI has been researching otters in Cambodia since 2006, and Olsson is leading a 2008 IUCN Red List review that is likely to support a higher threat classification for the species. The new listing status will make hairy-nosed otters a higher priority for protection and conservation funding.
Establishing a captive breeding population might well be a key step in ensuring the survival of the species. Olsson adds, “Dara could be the founder of such a captive population, if and when we find him a wife.”
As Dara continued to get acquainted with his new home, the monks’ chants faded away. Their good wishes seem to have given Dara a good start.
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