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Conservation of the Giant Otter

Conserving the Giants of the Amazon

The Giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) is the largest otter species that exists and it inhabits the lakes, rivers and currents of the tropical plains of South America (from sea level to 600 meters above sea level) to the east of the Andes in the basins of the Orinoco, Amazon and La Plata rivers.

 

River otters have gone from plentiful distribution in the past to nearing extinction in some areas and their presence is rare, fragmented and diminished, especially in the southeastern region of their habitat. The species has gone extinct in Uruguay and Argentina, and is now rarely encountered in Paraguay. The largest populations of Giant otters today reside in Guyana, the Pantanal of Brazil, and in southeastern Peru along the Brazilian and Bolivian borders. 

giant otter
Giant otter. Photo: Oscar Mujica

In Danger for Decades 

 

These impressive creatures have been threatened with extinction for seven decades. In Peru, they are considered in danger, the IUCN identifies the species on their Red List and CITES in Appendix 1. From 1946 until the 1970s, river otter furs were considered highly fashionable in Europe. The overwhelming hunting and sale to which it was exposed killed off its population in some countries and Peru was one of the largest providers of river otter furs. Today, they are no longer hunted for their fur but face other threats like mining and logging that put their habitats at risk. Directly or indirectly, humans continue to be their biggest predators. 

The Giant Otter Project

The FZS Peru Giant Otter Project was founded in 1990 by biologists Christof Schenck and Elke Staib and has since become the emblem of our work. This project seeks to increase knowledge and understanding of this charismatic animal, and to develop a long-term plan of action for its conversation in the country.

 

The main activities of the project are:

Monitoring giant otter in Salvador lake, Manu
Census of giant otters in the Manu National Park. Photo: FZS file.


Monitoring

One of the most important components of this project, and perhaps the most entertaining, is monitoring the river otter populations and documenting their habits. Our team of biologists and field assistants update this data in bi-annual censuses within the Manu National Park, the Tambopata National Reserve and their buffer zones. 

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Photo: Joel Mendoza.

Network of Strategic Partners

The purpose of this research is to communicate the importance of this species for the tourism sector through better understanding of its interaction with visitors, being without question one of the principal tourism attractions in the region. What is more, this information is used in coordination with the local governments to establish necessary conditions for the development of eco-tourism businesses to work according to the conservation strategy for the Giant otter and at the same time in favor of the sustainable development of the local population that live around the protected areas. 

 

Key to Tourism

giant otter close up

The Giant otters are the only large Amazon predators with high likelihood of being seen because of its diurnal and routine habits, and the small size of its habitat.

Its popularity makes thousands of sightings each year possible, which could be harmful to the river otters if tourism activities are not properly managed and the animals no longer come out because of stress. Tourism administration for the giant otters should mark off areas to give space and privacy to the species for reproduction.

The biggest threat comes from disturbances near the otters’ dens and when pups are still small. It is necessary to respect minimum observational distances for the Giant otters to feed without being disturbed. On the other hand, it could easily happen that a tour guide would feel pressured by their visitors to have a “better” view and get too close.
For this reason it is even more important that tourists as much as tourism agents understand the possible consequences of their actions.

Emblematic Species of Madre de Dios

giant otter. ROB2471.jpg

In 2011, the FZS began the process of registering the Giant otter as an emblematic species of the Madre de Dios region. The regional government of the natural protected areas and tourism authorities came together to legally register its conservation and in May of that year, it was made official.

This multi-sectorial initiative aims to find viable solutions as much on behalf of the river otter as the local communities that share this important space, like the rivers and lakes, and that mutually benefit from the formalization process. To ensure the protection of these emblematic animals, the FZS is preparing a draft of the Regional Strategy and to date the situational investigation of the species is in its last stage.
Photo: Rob Williams

Giant Otter Festival

giant otter festival parade

2011 was a good year for the Giant otter in Madre de Dios. Not only was the species legally registered as a representative species, but it was also the year in which the Giant Otter Festival was inaugurated.
The key: stimulate awareness through entertaining activities for all ages and with local participation. It is a collaborative effort, bringing together local governments of the protected areas like Manu and Tambopata, as well as other conservation organizations to organize and participate in two weeks of ecological workshops, art competitions, field visits, games and presentations, all related to the Giant otter.

Photo: Rob Williams

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