Penampang lass highlights otter conservation in Sabah


A pair of smooth-coated otters.

KOTA KINABALU: Adorable and cute, otters are an underrated species that needs to be highlighted in terms of conservation, especially in Sabah, because of the lack of scientific study. There seems to be only a few scientific papers on this carnivorous mammal in Sabah since the 80’s.

Otters are found on every single continent in the world except for Australia and Antarctica. The anatomy of an otter is designed to allow it to get around well both on land and in the water.

The social structure of otters is one that seems very complex from the outside looking in. Otters are extremely social and it isn’t uncommon to see them playing with each other in the water or on the shore.

Here in Borneo, in particular Sabah, there are four known otter species; the Smooth-coated Otter, Small-clawed Otter, Hairy-nosed Otter and Eurasian Otter. The Hairy-nosed Otter and the Eurasian Otter were thought to be extinct in Borneo, but recently, there have been sightings of these two species.

In mid-2010, there was quite a buzz worldwide when the hairy-nosed otter was rediscovered in Borneo right here at the Deramakot Forest Reserve in Sabah. The last confirmed record of the hairy-nosed otter in the state was more than 100 years ago, and it has not been seen in Borneo since an individual was killed by a car in 1997.

According to a report by the British Broadcasting Corporation, experts only realised they had recorded a hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) after examining photos of three different otter species.

One otter species caught on camera was the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), while another was the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus).

But a close examination of one photograph revealed it had recorded a hairy-nosed otter, which has a flatter, longer head, a white throat and darker fur than its two relatives.

Otters can be found in the Lower Kinabatangan and several other areas in Sabah.

But soon, people in Sabah and the rest of the world would get to know more about otters in Borneo, thanks to the wonderful work of Leona Wai.

It was during her final year, doing a bachelor’s degree in Conservation Biology at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) that she was introduced to Benoit Goossens, and soon thereafter decided to pursue her Masters with Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).

“Wildlife and nature has been my passion since I was young and I have fallen in love with otters ever since I first saw them in a zoo,” said Penampang-born Leona.

“Their unique behaviour, fierce-yet-adorable appearance was what attracted me most.

“When Goossens and DGFC provided me the opportunity to do a research on otters, I was so thrilled and knew straight away that I could not turn down this offer and here was my chance to do something for the otters. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Leona says it is important to confirm what species occur in Borneo so scientists can establish a conservation management plan for the otters.

Otters, according to Leona, are a very fragile species, and their survival depends on the quality of their environment. Hence, by monitoring the health of the ecosystem, especially water ecosystem, people like Leona can monitor the otter population in that particular area.

“Moreover, they control the population of the prey that they hunt, which will then balance the ecosystem. For example, in the Kinabatangan flood plains, otters are seen to consume an invasive fish species in the Kinabatangan river, Amazon Sailfin Catfish.

“Otters also play an important role in the ecotourism industry. Their adorable appearance and playful behaviour make people love to watch them.

“They are unique because they will usually be together with their mate until the end of their life. They are also very nurturing to their young and will take care of them until the young becomes an adult and decides to leave the group to mate.

“They will usually defend their territory by fighting with other groups who want to take over their area. Otters being a very territorial species, will mark their territory using their spraint (faeces and pee), signalling to other groups that the area is occupied by them.”

Otters are very social animals and usually hunt in groups. They usually hunt fish by making a circle and forcing the fish to jump into the centre. This makes it easier for them to catch the fish. They will protect and help one another.

Leona admits that while the otters are small and not as famous as those megafauna, they play many important roles in the ecosystem.

“Being able to actually contribute something in conservation in my own state is such a pleasure for me and I don’t think I will stop doing my work in conservation ever,” she said. Local people, especially the younger generation, need to be more aware and appreciate the beauty of nature in their own backyard and must start to take action in protecting the environment before it is too late.

“I started my fieldwork in DGFC in February 2016 and finished in March a year later. I am currently writing my thesis and hope to finish writing by the end of this year. My Masters project entitled, the Ecology of Otters in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Santuary (LKWS), has three main aims:

(1) to determine the distribution and presence of otter in different habitat type across LKWS using boat survey;

(2) to investigate the activity pattern of otter using camera trapping; and

(3) to identify human-otter conflict and villagers’ perceptions towards otters by interviewing the local communities.

“My whole fieldwork period has been nothing but excitement and fun. A whole year in the jungle has taught me many things and every day I discover something new, the jungle never fails to surprise me.”

Having attended the Otter International Congress in Singapore in July 2016 and by meeting many otter experts from all over the world and hearing their experiences, has broadened her to a whole new perspective.

She is now a member of the IUCN Otter Specialist Group (OSG).

DGFC and the rest of the world should be getting to know more about otters in Borneo thanks to Leona, and her team. And wait for the exciting episode featuring Bertie and Leona in the Borneo Jungle Series that will be aired on Monday.

As for Leona, she wishes to pursue a PhD on otters in the near future, to continue her research on otters on a bigger scale, and possibly in the whole of Borneo.