17 Feb

World's Rarest Otter Photographed in Sumatra by Tiger Team


Home to hundreds of mammal and bird species, the Indonesian island of Sumatra is most often renowned for its magnificent mega fauna, including the Sumatran tiger, rhino, elephant and orangutan.

Here, situated in the southern tip of the island, Panthera works in close partnership with Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation (TWNC) – a 450km2 privately managed concession - and the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia to carry out a significant Tigers Forever conservation initiative on behalf of the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger.

Last year, however, during a field trip in TWNC to survey local tiger populations, the joint Panthera-TWNC field team was thrilled to encounter an altogether different species, and the rarest of its kind – the hairy-nosed otter.

This unusual sighting, captured on camera, serves as only the second observation of the hairy-nosed otter, alive and in the wild, in Sumatra in the last 50 years! Even more, this otter was photographed 350km south of the species’ estimated range – a finding that challenges scientists’ beliefs about the extent of the hairy-nosed otter’s habitat in Sumatra.

Read a report on this sighting published by the IUCN Otter Specialist Group.

Having spent months following and studying groups of giant otters in the Amazon for his PhD, Panthera’s wild cat scientist and post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Rob Pickles, had developed a fondness for otters, the most playful members of the weasel family.

The hairy-nosed otter groomed itself on a sand bar after scent marking a log in the Cukuh Babui estuary, Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation

He shared, “The otter had clambered onto a pile of logs wedged on a sandbar at the mouth of an estuary and was busy scent marking when we spotted it. It leapt down, had a good roll on the sand and enthusiastically groomed itself, before swimming across the river and into the swamp. Thankfully I always keep a compact camera rigged to my chest for lucky encounters such as this, and was able to document the sighting!”

Dr. Pickles continued, “Going by the size and shape, I initially thought it was a Eurasian otter. It wasn’t until we blew up the photos several weeks later at headquarters that the large slanted nostrils, strikingly white dabs on the lips, and the fuzzy conk rang bells of recognition and excitement. It was indeed the fabled hairy-nosed otter. I thought I’d have as much chance of seeing a hairy-nosed unicorn as I would of ever watching this notoriously rare otter in the wild!”

After the observation, and using a bit of Indonesian ingenuity, the field team commandeered a floating log and paddled upstream looking for further sign of the otter. The scientists found a log marked by otter spraint, or feces, on the edge of the lagoon, and set a camera trap in this position in hopes of recording footage of the hairy-nosed otter.

Unfortunately, soon after the team departed, the lagoon was saturated by monsoon rains, washing the camera trap into the sea. A local villager, however, amazingly discovered the camera trap on a beach several months later and turned it in to TWNC headquarters. Although full of water, the camera’s SD card was still functioning, and revealed a short, but wonderful, 3-second video of this hairy-nosed otter!

A camera trap set on a latrine log in the Cukuh Babui Estuary captures the moment when an adult male hairy-nosed otter scent-marks, before disappearing into the mangrove swamp.

Today, the hairy-nosed otter, Lutra sumatrana, is the world’s most elusive and endangered member of the otter tribe, and apart from a penchant for dining on fish and snakes and living in swamps, very little is known about its behavior and ecology, or even how widespread the species is today. Old pelts and observations made by early explorers suggest that its range extended from northern Myanmar, down into the Malay Archipelago as far west as Borneo.

However, this species of otter is so rare that there was debate in 1998 regarding whether to classify the hairy-nosed otter as extinct, as no observations of the animal had been made in over 10 years. In Sumatra, the island after which the species was named, one has to search old accounts dating back to the 1960s to find the last observation of the otter. The only recent observation of the species was made in 2005, of a deceased animal, near a road in Jambi Province.

A sign of hope for the future of the hairy-nosed otter, these latest findings have demonstrated that Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation could serve as a significant conservation area for the species. TWNC forms part of a peninsula that juts into the Sunda Strait, and along the southern and western coast are numerous swamps and estuaries, winding forested creeks and upland streams offering prime otter habitat. Lagoons that form in the dry season offer excellent hunting and prey species for hairy-nosed otters as well.

The most significant factor about Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation, however, is the protection given to local wildlife. Unlike much of southern Sumatra, otters are not poached for hides or persecuted as pests of fishermen in Tambling. The mangroves are not threatened with development, and the strong security team, which regularly patrols deep into the park and has enabled the area’s tiger population to exist at high density, also protects the otters, providing hairy-noses with the chance to survive and thrive in this region.

Check back with us for updates on sightings and conservation of Sumatra’s hairy-nosed otter.

About TWNC
Artha Graha Peduli (“AGP”) supports the management and conservation of Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation (“Tambling”), a four hundred and fifty square kilometre (450 km2) concession in the south of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBSNP), Indonesia. This concession provides a permanent refuge for tigers and other wildlife, and represents a model for conservation leadership in Indonesia and around the world. BBSNP is managed by the Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) of the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia. Visit Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation.

Read Panthera’s press release – Hope for Tigers Lives in Sumatra – on preliminary camera trap data from Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation indicating the highest tiger density estimates across all of Sumatra.

Hairy-Nosed Otter Photo Gallery