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The International Otter Congress, held once every few years, sees the congregation of members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Otter Specialist Group (OSG) to discuss conservation statuses, future strategies and threat mitigation for the 13 extant otter species. Previously conducted in North America in 2004 (Frostburg, USA), Asia in 2007 (Hwacheon, South Korea), Europe in 2011 (Pavia, Italy) and South America (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). The upcoming 13th congress will be held in Singapore for the first time, with a focus on the survival of otters in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia (SEA) is home to four species of otters, all in precipitous decline, including the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspillata), the short-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus), and the endangered hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana). The region is developing rapidly and otters face mounting threats by the ubiquitous drivers of biodiversity loss everywhere: habitat destruction and conflict. But a far great threat to otters in SEA is the widespread and ominous levels of illegal trade. In response to this crisis, the OSG has created the initiative "Developing Recovery Strategies for Otters in Southeast Asia," which will be the focus of the 2016 Congress.
The hunting and trade in otters has reached crisis proportions in Asia in the last ten years. All four threatened Asian otter species receive little protection and remain poorly studied. Otters have been systematically trapped and extirpated from most of the rivers in Myanmar, Lao PDR, and northern regions of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Foreign traffickers, often from the world of organised crime, train local fishermen and trappers to catch otters and preserve their pelts and body parts for illegal export to China for the fur and medicine markets. To curb this trend, we must engage in active cooperation with riverine communities, local biologists, conservationists, and agency officials in the region.
The IUCN-SSC OSG launched its Asian Otter Task Force in 2007. We have spent the past eight years building capacity, surveying otter populations, and networking with local NGOs in SEA. We are currently in the process of mapping the status of otter populations and illegal trade in the four otter species in the region, and have established working relationships with scientists and NGOs in the region. Recovery strategies must be tailored to the specific needs of each country, since threats vary from country to country. Since otters inhabit rivers, wetlands and lakes, their fate is closely linked to the health of water resources for human communities as well. The 2016 Congress will allow us to emphasise the importance of water resource protection and empower on-the-ground programs.