Everyone has a favourite animal. What animal we choose to idolize says a lot about ourselves – some people choose based on their innate cuteness, some pick a favorite animal based on their intelligence or unsual traits, while still others choose to solely on the basis of raw power or coolness. There are a lot of different animals out there- more than several billion at the last estimate – but one thing is clear: you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like otters.
Part puppy, part kitten, part baby seal, otters are chimeric hybrids of everything that we seem to find appealing in animals rolled into a single, slithery package. There are two main kinds of otters on Earth – the sleek river otters, which have been immortalized in works of fiction such as The Wind in the Willows, and their slightly chubbier cousins, the sea otters. Of these two varieties, sea otters are far and away the more popular of the two. Not only are they gregarious creatures who enjoy floating on their backs like lazy tourists, but they’re also intelligent and adaptable, famous for using tools like sharp rocks to crack open sea urchins, their favourite food.
But –as seems to be the case with every small, cute animal these days – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sea otters have been in human crosshairs for quite some time, and the species is, even today, listed as endangered. Otters have come under threat for a variety of reasons – as far back as the 16th century, they were hovering on the brink of extinction for their thick, waterproof pelts. At the same time, aspiring fisherman saw them as nuisances and hunted them down. By the eighteenth century, the worldwide sea otter population had dwindled from some 300,000 individuals to a paltry 2000. By 1900, zoologists estimated that California’s sea otter population hovered somewhere around 50 individuals.
Even after people came to realize their inherent cuteness, otters both on land and at sea became threatened by a host of new dangers, this time unwitting byproducts of human civilization. Marine garbabge choked them, oil spills and toxic runoff poisoned them, and intrusive constructions like dam-building altered the landscape around them. But otters are durable creatures, related to hardy survivors like weasels and ferrets. At one time, Earth hosted thirteen species of otter… and now, in 2017, all thirteen of these species have managed to pull through and boost their populations appreciably.
In California, the resounding ecological rebound of the Californian sea otter can be attributed to the efforts of Monterey Bay Aquarium, a conservation-focussed endeavor that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases lost and injured sea otters. Mature otters are fitted with radio transmitters that allows researchers to track their movement over the years and monitor the health of surrounding ecosystems with periodic checkups. From a meagre 50, California’s otter population has bounced all the way up to 3000, with plenty more otter pups on the way.
In other parts of the world, different species of otter are under threat, but local groups are working to preserve them. The murky forests of Cambodia are home to the hairy-nossed otter – larger than European or American specimens, this whiskery creature makes its home in flooded forests, swamps, and other brackish locations. The hairy-nosed otter is a survival story all on its own: thought extinct since the 1990s, scientists recently discovered four separate breeding populations scattered throughout the region. Given clemency, scientists quickly worked to ensure protections on the species and its habitat. The biggest challenge? Poverty. Poor communities are more likely to turn to destructive land management, overlooking the natural biospheres of surrounding areas and accelerating their own issues by pushing local forests over the brink. Cambodia has recently appointed several “otter ambassadors” designed to keep knowledge of the otter and its importance to surrounding town sand villages – hopefully future generations can keep “awing” at cute otter videos without a twinge of regret.