On August 26, 2019, the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) made a welcome decision by including the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cineria) and smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perscipillata) in CITES Appendix I. Previously, these species were listed on CITES Appendix II and had a provision for controlled global trade. Export is only possible with permits in a controlled trade. Permits may be provided by countries that have agreed that taking a person would not endanger the wild populations of the species in question. The uplisting of these species effectively bans foreign commercial trade in both species.
According to a 2016 study from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization, four species of otter in Asia–Asian small-clawed, Eurasian, hairy-nosed, and smooth-coated–are significantly endangered due to poaching and trade. Their dense fur is used to make coats and hats, which are common primarily in China, and other body parts are used in medicine. According to a 2019 National Geographic survey, the animals are captured from the wild in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations and sold as pets within the same countries and even in Japan.
Otters in Nepal
Nepal and India suggested the uplisting of both species, while Bangladesh and the Philippines proposed the smooth-coated and Asian small-clawed otter, respectively. As a Nepali aspiring to a career in wildlife conservation in Nepal, I take great pride in seeing our country at the forefront of this proposal and advocating for the species’ uplisting. However, I am equally worried and oblivious to other conservation initiatives being implemented in Nepal for these otter species.
The first thing I would suggest is that we identify possible otter distribution sites around the country. Previous reports, expert recommendations, anecdotal sayings, media reports of otter sightings, and old capture records can all serve as a starting point for new surveys. Linear transect surveys along rivers and bank surveys in the case of a single source of water are commonly used for otter research. The E-DNA process, which is essentially a survey in which genetic material of potential living beings in habitat is collected using a standard procedure, can also be used. DNA extraction from water resources has been shown to be effective on numerous occasions, and it was recently used to research fish diversity in the Karnali.
The second step, in my opinion, is to improve legal protections for the protection of these species, while eliminating as many loopholes as possible. This can be accomplished by designating them as endangered species under the NPWC Act of 1973. The government has been planning to update this list for quite some time, and we must ensure that this update occurs as soon as possible. Strong provisions for the defense of this species may also be made in the Aquatic Animal Conservation Act by expressly listing the names of the species and the penalty applicable if these animals are harmed. However, legal issues take time to resolve, and we cannot wait for the laws to change until we begin surveying for animals.
Third, and most importantly, these species must be brought under the management purview of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC). National parks, nature reserves, and protected areas should be asked to prioritize conservation and management of this species. They should also be guided with equipment and training to identify possible otter activity hotspots. Daily patrols will secure these areas. Once these areas have been marked, restoration efforts can be carried out with the participation of local residents.
Tourism dependent on otter watching can be established at various locations. If visitors are told about otter-watching in the wild, the animals that draw pet-keepers from all over the world will undoubtedly be a top priority. The best example is otter tourism in Singapore. Community-based tourism that demonstrates otter eating, swimming, preying, and social behaviors without damaging the animals or their environment can be an effective way to turn people’s focus away from direct resource exploitation and toward the benefits of resource conservation. As a result, the group can be mobilized to protect biodiversity, fight smuggling, and otter killing. Otter-human conflict can also be reduced to a greater degree by promoting otter-based tourism.
We should be proud of what we accomplished in CITES CoP18 by our direct participation. This accomplishment, however, should not be viewed as the end, but rather as the beginning of more work. Being recognized for environmental awareness is one thing; setting examples of exceptional conservation management is quite another. As conservation leaders, we should opt for the latter option right now. Let us lift our voices and work together to ensure that our otters are legally protected and that the animals and their environment are treated scientifically. On World Otter Day 2021, this is the greatest gift we can send to otters.