Exploitation of otters

When advertising the attractions for eco-tourists of an island, shore or lake, the presence of otters of any species is a certain asset: the animals now have a charisma that moves anyone with a love of nature, even the most experienced naturalists. Visitors to an area may not encounter the animal, but the knowledge of its presence alone is sufficient to attract, and otters are an asset in television documentaries. However, not so long ago, and to some extent today, the animals had or have more practical uses. The most important of these applications is their fur, of which more below, but there are other benefits that people derive from otters.

The species that is displayed most often in zoos all over the world is the small-clawed otter (Foster-Turley and Engfer 1988), which is relatively easy to breed and takes well to captivity. Playful and diurnal, it makes a highly attractive exhibit in a suitable pool. Other species are kept occasionally; in several western European countries otter parks have become fashionable, where mostly the local species, Eurasian otters, are kept.

A rather less peaceful entertainment, involving especially Eurasian otters, was the sport of otter hunting, with specially bred and trained otter hounds. It was popular in England until the 1960s, and similarly common in many other countries of Europe, with much cruelty involved in the process. The otter hunt was celebrated in a well known 1844 painting by Sir Edwin Landseer. In Britain otter hunting was outlawed in 1981, and in virtually all countries in western Europe the animals are now protected.

In Asia, trained smooth otters are commonly used to help with fishing, especially in Bangladesh (Feeroz 2004; Hendrichs 1975). In the Sundarbans, small fishing boats go out at night, carrying three people and special nets, and three otters in individual harnesses on a lead. The otters surround and chase fish into the nets. In the study by Feeroz (2004), as many as 256 different otters were involved in this artisanal fishing, the animals caught wild or specially bred.

In many countries in Asia, otters are caught and marketed for food, or for medicine, and the African trade in 'bush meat' often involves otters. In Europe otters were also on the menu, and from Germany I was sent a (no doubt useful) recipe for Otter aux fines herbes (Kruuk 2002). One of the reasons for the Eurasian otter's popularity as food was the fact that it was classified as an honorary fish by the Roman Catholic Church, and could be eaten on fast days (Fridays and the six weeks before Easter). A splendid large painting by the Flemish painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657) in the Louvre shows a fish stall in the market, with an otter in pride of place.

At least as important is the present-day use of otter body parts in traditional medicine, in countries of south-east Asia and in China. A dried otter penis fetches US$40-50 (presumably without the baculum), and other parts are used as well. In India the blood of the smooth otter is used against epilepsy: it is collected in a clean vessel, a cloth is soaked in it and dried. When needed, a patient soaks the cloth in a glass of water and takes the fluid three times daily for 3 days. If fresh blood is available, then only once per day for 3 days will suffice (Nagulu etal. 1999).

However interesting, all such usage of the animals by people pales into commercial insignificance compared with the trade in their skins. Otter fur is highly prized and, although now outlawed in many western countries, there still is a roaring business elsewhere. Staggering numbers of otters have been caught over the years, different species in different countries, and in many places to this day, they die a nasty death to feed this trade.

The best known example, with its dramatic consequences for the species, is the slaughter of sea otters in the north Pacific ocean, remarkably well documented in 'Otter skins, Boston ships, and China goods' (Gibson 1992). The disastrous trade came to a halt in 1911, but not before the species had been all but wiped out. In the 18 th and 19 th centuries, a sea otter skin was worth more than that of almost any other animal; after his expedition in 1804-1806, the explorer William Clark wrote: 'The fur of them were more butiful than any fur I have ever seen, it is the richest and I think the most delightful fur in the world at least I cannot form an idea of any more so, it is deep thick silky in the extream and strong' (Gibson 1992, p 6). The fur from northern coasts (Kurils and Aleutians) was better than that from California.

After a Russian expedition in 1741 'discovered' the sea otter, a gold-rush for their skins started, and until 1800 Russian ships shot and collected tens of thousands of animals. In the late eighteenth century, Spanish ships joined in the fur trade along the Californian coast, and further north both British and American traders moved into the fray. Unlike the Russians, crews on the British and American ships did not capture sea otters themselves, but traded with the Indian population who did the hunting for them. Often barbaric in their dealings with the locals, these traders had a massive influence on the demise of the Indian tribes and their culture (Gibson 1992). The sea otter skins were transported to Canton and sold to the Chinese, for excellent profits.

The American traders alone sold 158,070 sea otter skins from 1804 to 1837 (an average of 4790 per year), although in the last decade of this the supply of skins had dwindled to a trickle. The efforts of the British and Russians came on top of this, and it is known that numbers taken before 1800 were much higher. However, by about the 1840s there were few sea otters left, and the immense fur bonanza was reduced to just a regular harvest, with sea otter numbers falling steadily until they were fully protected in 1911 (Gibson 1992).

Skins of other otter species were valued far less than that of the sea otter, yet they featured large in the nineteenth century fur trade between America and China. In the period 1808-1837, American ships sold 286,166 river otter skins on the Canton market, an average of almost 10,000 per year, but their value was considered far inferior to that of the sea otter fur. Today, river otters are still being trapped in large numbers in most parts of North America; for instance, the number of their skins traded in USA and Canada in 1978 was 47,000 (Kruuk 2002), and more than 50,000 in more recent years. The otter harvest in Louisiana alone sometimes exceeds 10,000 animals per year, usually surpassing that in any other state (Official Website of Nebraska, www.nebraska.gov [July 2005]). In Missouri, and in several other states, river otters were eliminated by fur trappers from all but very few locations (Erickson and Hamilton 1988), before being reintroduced.

Such capture and trade of river otters is within the law, but through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) the import and export of skins of protected otter species is now illegal. It may be outlawed, yet in 1977 one single New York dealer smuggled, amongst many other furs, the skins of 15,470 neotropical and 271 giant otters into the country (Eltringham 1984).

There were several large sources of South American otter skins. From Peru, Schenck (1997) reported that, between 1946 and 1971, 24,282 giant otter skins were exported, almost 1000 per year, with a peak of 2248 at the beginning of the period. In the 9 years before 1969, 19,925 skins were exported from the Brazilian Amazon, more than 2000 per year, and from Colombia more than 1000 in 1965. Each skin was worth about the same as that of a jaguar. Neotropical otter skins were traded much more often; Peru alone officially exported 113,718 skins between 1959 and 1972, more than 8000 per year, with 14,000 in 1970 alone (and this was presumed to be only about half the real figure; Smith 1981).

In Europe, except in Russia and other eastern countries, trapping of Eurasian otters for their fur has virtually ceased, but up to the Second World War there was a substantial market for otter skins, as now in North America. The species is frequently trapped in Russia and in Asian countries, however. In the international fur trade more than half of all otter skins are bought by Russia, China, Korea and Japan. In a recent case of illicit trade in otter skins between India and Nepal, 665 otter skins (probably all or mostly smooth otter, originating in India) were impounded

Figure 14.1 Skin trade is a major threat. A display in a shop in Qing Hai, China, near the Tibet border, August 2005, showing seven skins of smooth otter, and leopard and snow leopard. © Chris Wood (Zhejiang University, China).

in October 2003 (www.careforthewild.org newsstory October 2005). In and around Tibet, skins of smooth otters are used in ceremonial dress, and in 2005 in one market 'very few of 40-odd shops did not display at least 3 or 4 full [smooth] otter skins, some up to 10 or 15' (C. Wood, personal communication, 2005; Fig. 14.1).

The fur trade still targets probably all species of otter, despite legal protection in many countries. What is important, though, is whether this affects numbers in populations, and we know little about that. The trade was clearly highly detrimental to the sea otter, and there is strong suggestive evidence that the giant otter is also affected (Schenck 1997); both of these species are relatively easy to kill. Whether the same is true for other species has not been demonstrated. It is likely that this kind of mortality is density dependent: hunters and trappers will desist when the effort involved becomes too great. But whether this is the case or not, fur trapping does constitute a source of mortality, that in these slowly reproducing species could be fatal for a population when it is hit simultaneously with other adverse conditions, and is unacceptable to many because of the cruelty involved.

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