Would otters come back to us?

The author, Dazhao Song, is the initiator of the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance.

My first encounter with the otter was entirely accidental. One night in October 2016, we were scanning the surrounding forest and barren land with flashlights on our way back to town after finishing fieldwork in Sichuan. We expected to find some activities of wild animals at night. As we were approaching a gentle stream, we discovered two adult Eurasian otters moving against the current to forage and climbing up rocks to groom themselves.

We stood on the side of the river and observed the otters, who were not afraid of humans and did not seem nervous. In a little while, they disappeared in the darkness upstream at their own pace. We set up some infrared cameras nearby hoping to capture their photos again. Unfortunately, we got nothing after two days.

We did not expect to find any otters in Sichuan because there was hardly any information about otters in China at that time. Besides, there were only a few places of known otter sightings in China, and few people paid attention to the species. On the other hand, environment enthusiasts believed that the otter was an uncommon and “noble” species among all wild animals in China. People could only consistently observe otters at a small number of places, such as the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve in Sichuan, and the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in the Tibetan Plateau.

Chinese otter is disappearing

Otter in the wild @ThePaper

The CFCA had captured Chinese otters by infrared cameras in the past. The first time was in 2014 when we photographed a European otter on a riverbank in Tibet. At the same spot, we also observed a group of passing jackals. In 2016, we took pictures of an Asian small-clawed otter with babies in Yunnan province. Afterward, we also found a piece of black feces containing fish bones on a riverside in Qinghai province, so we set up a device nearby. Not only did we capture images of Eurasian otters, but we also saw brown bears and Himalayan blue sheep drinking water.

There are three kinds of otters in China. Firstly, Eurasian otters are the most widespread among the three species. Secondly, the smaller and less populated Asian small-clawed otter mostly inhabit Yunnan and Hainan provinces. Lastly, the smooth-coated otter, the largest otter species in China, lives between the boundaries of Yunnan and Tibet and the coasts of Guangdong province. However, there had been a lack of reliable field data to support the distribution of the smooth-coated otter for decades.

Eurasian otters have excellent adaptability to new environments. They are active in various water bodies such as streams, lakes, and rivers, and even fishponds can serve as their foraging grounds. The primary diet of Eurasian otters is fish, and they also catch aquatic animals such as crab and shrimp. At the same time, the ideal nesting environments for Eurasian otters are locations near the shore, such as tree holes and rock caverns.

Eurasian otters are distributed across Europe and Asia. Except for deserts and cold areas with high altitudes, we could find Eurasian otters in almost all watershed on the two continents. Eurasian otter is a common species in Europe, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

However, the situation is the complete opposite in China. The distribution of otters has been updated continually with rising awareness and comprehensive field surveys across the country. Surprisingly, our systematic review found that Eurasian otters, the supposedly widespread species, have almost disappeared.

The trend of decline in the Eurasian otter population was evident in China. In the past, otters mainly inhabit in areas with abundant water, such as Eastern and Southern China, but today they almost entirely vanished. Recently, only a few provinces such as Jilin, Jiangxi, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Guangdong have records of otter sightings. Current healthy otter groups concentrate mainly in mountain regions of Southwestern China and some areas in the Tibet Plateau.

Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden, an environmental group, based in Hong Kong, conducted a field survey of otters in China and an evaluation of the otter population from previous pelt purchase records. They found that Eurasian otters were extinct in numerous Chinese provinces. Furthermore, in the regions where the Eurasian otter was distributed, the population had declined by 80% – 90% and 96% – 99% in some areas. Besides, Asian small-clawed otter sightings were only recorded in two districts in Yunnan province and a national reserve in Hainan province. Besides areas of low human population density and utilization of natural resources like the Tibet Plateau, otters were facing extinction in Eastern and Southern China.

Reasons behind the disappearance of otters

Changes in the species population often reflect the condition of the animal’s habitat. For example, the decline of tigers, the top species in the food chain, indicates the degradation of the ecosystem. However, the demise of otters suggests a worse environmental issue. The disappearance of Chinese otters, a species widely distributed in aquatic environments, means that the aquatic ecosystem of China is deteriorating.

The fate of otters and humans in China had always been closely intertwined throughout history. Otters were known to Chinese citizens by some folk names, such as “water monkey”, and “otter cats”. There was even a terrifying folktale in which otters would drag children into the water. Unfortunately, in the recent 70 years, the situation facing otters illustrated that China held conceptual misunderstandings regarding economic development and paid a high environmental cost as a result.

Hunting was the first determinant cause for disappearing otter groups. The fur trade and fisheries loss prevention were the two reasons to hunt otters.

Otter fur was expensive because of its excellent heat retention from being waterproof. The number of otters hunted was astonishing. According to fur trade data between provinces from 1953 to 1985, otter populations were affluent in various regions, especially in the Yangtze and Pearl river basins. Moreover, before 1960, people hunted more than 10,000 otters in these two river basins. In 1957 alone, over 40,000 otter skins were used for trade by the government of China. The hunting number of otters was even more startling in some provinces. For instance, the highest annual output of otter skin was over 25,000 in Hunan province.

Otter skins were not only sought after in Eastern and Southern China but also an essential trade product in Tibet despite being known for ahimsa (no killing) traditionally. Tibetans used to prefer to use otter skin to decorate the sleeves of clothes because it was a symbol of wealth. A tradition that used otters’ organs was a vital part of Tibetan medicine until it was abandoned in 2000.

Besides fur trade, otters, an expert in catching fish, were killed significantly as a pest due to the industrial development of fisheries. Some pelts were picked up by the fur trade, but other than that there was no data for otters killed as pests. Therefore, it was hard to estimate the negative influence on the otter population from fisheries loss prevention.

Otters are not alone in his situation. For quite a while in the past, the Chinese had an outdated understanding of natural resources in which most wild animals were only considered for their economic value and ways of utilization. People completely ignored the wild animals’ ecological value. Take the tiger as a typical example. The humans quickly and thoroughly slaughtered South China tigers because they were seen as a pest. Nevertheless, a few large tiger farms used to supply the market for tiger products persisted awkwardly and stubbornly.

Often ignored, the second reason for disappearing otter groups was the degrading ecosystem. When people recalled the history of the decline of otters, they generally focused on historical hunting and neglected the other tell-tale signs. The otter fur trade of Mainland China mostly stopped in 1980, but the otter population did not recover afterward. On the contrary, in Tibet, hunting otters was not prohibited until the early 21st century, but the local otter population recovered in just over a decade. The fundamental reason between these two situations was the severe water pollution in urban environments, which made fish unable to survive in rivers.

In Mainland China, every drainage basin was facing some effects of environmental degradation, such as exhausted resource of freshwater fish, pollution, and construction of hydropower stations. Otters, the top species in the freshwater system, had no means of survival in such a condition.

Not only are we losing otters, but we are also losing clean freshwater, one of the fundamental elements on which humans depend.

Challenges and prospects in protecting otters

Despite the rising recognition of the otter’s importance, the current otter conservation in China was in an awkward position from the authorities’ perspective.

Since otters live both on land and in water, it is unclear which national department has jurisdiction over the protection of otters. In the forest, the otter would be protected by the forestry department. On the other hand, the agricultural department would take responsibility for the otters in rivers. It seems unreasonable for the agricultural department to be responsible for otters living in the aquatic ecosystem while the department’s primary duties involve utilizing the environment and food production.

Once the jurisdiction is made clear, protecting otters would not be a difficult task. Any species of otter is just a medium-sized, highly-adaptive carnivore with a limited home range. Unlike big cats and canines, otters do not need a vast habitat, and many examples of successful breeding of otters do exist. Both the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve in Sichuan and the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong ensured otter reproduction with a relatively small habitat with artificial landscaping. Based on the close relationship between humans and otters in history, otters did not care about neighboring with humans. If well managed, otters have an excellent chance of becoming a flagship species in an urban ecological landscape and a symbol of a recovering ecosystem. Take Singapore as a typical example. The smooth-coated otters, already disappeared in China, inhabited Singapore in good numbers. They could live and hunt in artificial ditches, which became a spotlight in the urban ecological landscape.

The attitude of treating otters could reflect the stage of civilization in a country. Today we are not concerned about not having enough clothing to keep warm in the winter and the availability of fish in the market. Instead, we are worrying about the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Could we also pay attention to an adorable animal that had lived with us throughout history? Could we welcome them to come back to us? Could we change our suburban environment for the sake of the otter’s survival? To answer these questions, we must all depend on our human wisdom.

A world with otters would be cleaner and more beautiful than the current environment.

All information comes from  https://www.thepaper.cn/

Translated by Yiyi Wen

Edited by Andrea Jia @ Animal Dialogue

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