This video is called Scotland’s Big 5 – European Otter.
British Animal Honours 2013 – Interview with the winners
The Nature Magpie in conversation with the winners of the Wildlife Conservation Honour
April 2013. April marked the inaugural screening of ITV’s British Animal Honours, the first televised ceremony to award the country’s most remarkable animals and the people who dedicate their lives to them. The show proved to be a celebration of altruism, dedication and passion. The winners of the first ever Wildlife Conservation Honour went to Grace and Paul Yoxon, founders of the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF). Dr Daniel Allen, author of The Nature Magpie, was a member of the expert judging panel. In this exclusive interview Daniel chats with Grace and Paul to find out what winning this award means to them and their charity.
1. The IOSF is celebrating its twentieth birthday in 2013. I can’t think of anything more fitting than being awarded The Wildlife Conservation Honour by The British Animal Honours. When you founded the charity in 1993, did you think you would make such an impact?
Never. Originally we were taking people out to watch wildlife and we really wanted to put something back into conservation. And when we saw our first otter it just captivated us. But I don’t suppose we ever thought it would grow into what it is now. The more we have found out about otters the more we want to do and there is still so much to do. In Asia, for example, there is a big problem with the illegal trade in otters for fur and pets and that is a huge challenge.
But we also have to be grateful to all our wonderful supporters. Without them we simply couldn’t do anything.
2. You are based on the Isle of Skye. It always amazes me how a couple are raising global awareness about otter conservation and helping to save species from such an isolated place. How did you end up there? Were you inspired by Gavin Maxwell in any way?
We first came to Skye on a field trip while we were at Keele University and we fell in love with the West Coast of Scotland. Of course this area was also made famous for otters by Gavin Maxwell. Now that we have the internet we can work on otter conservation worldwide and over the years we have had projects in over 30 countries including Belarus, Chile, Mexico, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Russia and Indonesia. I think having an office so close to wild otters keeps us grounded.
3. What are your respective roles in the charity?
There are four of us who work for the charity and to some extent we have to be able to cover for each other if someone is away. Grace does the practical animal work with the cubs and also the education. Paul is more of the scientist and does the research and survey work and he is also responsible for fundraising – a never ending task. Janet Wildgoose is the Co-ordinator and she looks after the databases and liaises with supporters. And Helen Stephenson is the Development Officer and is responsible for the Ottershop, our design and photography, and also helps with fieldwork.
4. How many otters have you rehabilitated and released in Scotland? In which other countries has the IOSF helped to protect the species?
Actually I looked at the figures again only yesterday! We have rehabilitated 160 otters since we started and out of those 100 were cubs. We have also helped cubs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Guyana, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Nigeria, Portugal, Republic of Congo and USA. We are currently waiting for a young otter to be transferred here from Ireland.
5. My otter obsession started as a young child, watching Tarka the Otter for the first time. What was it that made you want to dedicate your lives to otters?
I think it was that first sight of an otter down near Elgol, on Skye. We were just down on the shore and it came out onto a rock and ate a fish right in front of us. And each time you see an otter it is a totally different experience. Sometimes it is just a tail disappearing into the water and then it is gone. Other times you can watch a mother and her young playing only yards away, totally unaware that you are there. It is never the same.
We have both always been fascinated by wildlife but the otter is something special. But they are also great environmental indicators – as they use both the land and water both habitats have to be in good condition which is not only good for otters but for all species, including our own.
6. The Eurasian otter has recolonized rivers in every county of England. Some believe this is “mission accomplished” on the conservation front, others believe the animal has become a pest. What are your thoughts?
There has been so much in the media about otters being everywhere and this is a huge exaggeration. It is very hard to give exact numbers as surveys are done using droppings (spraint) but the most recent figures quoted 10,000 for the whole of the UK, with 2,000 of those being in England and Wales. That is a very low number.
There have also been problems with drought and floods and neither of these conditions are good for otters. Otters are certainly being seen in new places but it is certainly not an “explosion” of otters as has been quoted! They do not breed quickly and it is more likely that the home ranges are getting larger as they need to travel further to get food and find holt sites.
And recently researchers at Cardiff University found that pollutants are now causing potential reproductive problems in males. The reason otter numbers dropped so low in the 1950s and 1960s was largely due to pollutants and so it is very worrying that this seems to be a problem again.
But of course we understand that people involved in fisheries are worried that otters are taking all their fish. People with fish farms or who keep koi carp are often contacting us and complaining about otters. Some even threaten to take their own action against the otters, even though this is illegal as the otter is protected. We have even had someone phone to say they had a nature reserve with all sort of species – now they had an otter and how could they get rid of it?!
One of the problems is that these fisheries have grown up where there were no otters and so they were not prepared for otters taking their fish and really like all good livestock owners they should be protecting their fish. But we have to work with the fisheries people. So in November we held a conference in Edinburgh to bring otter scientists and fishery people together to give over the true facts from both points of view and work together on trying to resolve problems. We now have a working group to take things forward.
7. The public may not be aware of the challenges otters face around the world. What are they and how are the IOSF helping?
There are 13 species of otter in the world and we would say that the biggest problem facing them is ignorance. In so many countries they are simply being overlooked and yet they are so important. As we said, they are a great ambassador to a healthy environment but in many countries people know nothing about them. And as with so many species the impact of humans is causing the problems.
Most people would think it is loss of habitat, pollution and hunting, and of course these are major problems. However people just don’t think about otters and so never consider the impacts of their actions on them.
8. I am always very impressed by your work against the illegal fur trade. Can you tell us a little more about the IOSF furget-me-not campaign in Asia?
The Furget-Me-Not campaign was started in Asia in response to the threat to otters by the fur trade. Every thinks of the large species such as tigers, leopards, rhinos and elephants in relation to illegal trade but the otter is also a major part of the trade. For every tiger skin found there are at least 10 otter skins and one haul in Tibet found 778 otter skins. This included skins from the rare hairy-nosed otter – this species was believed to be extinct in 1998 but since then small isolated populations have been found in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. But if the fur trade continues as it is these otters will really become extinct, and this time there will be no way back.
In Indonesia there is a large trade in otters for the pet trade and most animals are taken from the wild. Often the mother is killed to get the cubs but as they aren’t cared for properly they die and so another animal is taken as a replacement. Most pet otters are Asian small-clawed but recently there have been a few cases of hairy-nosed otters as pets, which again have died.
People trading in otters are often poor and trying to add to their meagre living so it is difficult to condemn them. What we need to do is not only to educate people not to take otters from the wild but help to introduce alternative ways of adding to their income without killing otters.
It is also important to involve local people in otter conservation. So IOSF has had workshops in Cambodia and Indonesia to train more otter scientists who can carry out more research and work within their communities on education and public awareness. At the Indonesian workshop we met with some members of the otter pet community (Otter Lovers Indonesia) to help them to understand that by taking otters from the wild they were creating a real threat to the future of otters in their country.
It is only by working within communities that you can see real change and our next workshop is planned for China – that will be a real challenge!
9. What has been your proudest otter conservation achievement so far?
Paul: That is very difficult to say. Finding the funding to show that hairy-nosed otters are not extinct in the wild as Asian people thought in 1998 was a great step in otter conservation. We were able to set up a project in Vietnam and I was fortunate to be able to visit and see the work and the photos of this species caught on camera traps. Since then small populations have also been found in Thailand, Cambodia and Sumatra.
Grace: Each time you release an otter it is a great sense of excitement and achievement. But I suppose the Indonesian workshop was a great achievement. Seeing the Indonesian people set up their own Otter Network to continue the work was a major step forward in conservation in that country. We had been asked by the Ministry responsible for conservation to produce recommendations and on our final day there we met with them to discuss the way forward. And it was also very encouraging to see that members of the pet community there were actually beginning to understand the impact of taking otters from the wild.
10. Why should the public become more involved with otter conservation?
If they care about their environment then they should care about otters. People often say they are cute and playful but they are also wild carnivores and we mustn’t forget that. They are a vital part of our ecosystem and by caring for otters we will automatically conserve the environment, and that is good for everyone.
Read more about International Otter Survival Fund.
Dr Daniel Allen – Author of The Nature Magpie
Dr Daniel Allen is an affiliate member of the IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group; his first book, Otter, was released as part of Reaktion Books Animal series in September 2010. – The Nature Magpie is released by Icon Books on May 2, 2013.