Kinabatangan: Researchers at Danau Girang Field Centre have just recorded the first sighting of the extremely rare hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS).
While walking along a ridge near the river, Richard Burger, a PhD student at Cardiff University, accompanied by several students Nurul Aizatul, Nur Syafawati and Valerie from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and local research assistant Nazrul bin Moh Natsyir, spotted a strange-looking animal in the distance galloping along a ridge towards them.
“I quickly got out my phone to try to record a video of the animal,” said Burger.
“We all stood still, and the otter just continued running towards us, before stopping to smell us from only around a metre away. It was absolutely amazing, and totally unexpected!
“I had never seen a wild otter that close up before, but when Leona Wai confirmed that it was definitely a hairy-nosed otter, I realised just how incredible this experience was for us.”
Fellow Cardiff University PhD student at Danau Girang Field Centre and local Sabahan Leona Wai are carrying out research throughout Sabah to better understand the ecology of the four Bornean otter species (smooth-coated otter, Asian small-clawed otter, Eurasian otter and hairy-nosed otter).
She is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Otter Specialist Group (OSG), and had this to say: “This species is known to be very elusive and sensitive to human disturbance. Hairy-nosed otters prefer habitats that are not easily accessed by humans such as dense swamp forest; therefore, it is difficult to spot them in the wild. When Rich showed me the video, I was very surprised and happy to see this rare species exists in the Kinabatangan!”
The species had not been seen in Sabah for over 100 years and was thought to be extinct until a single individual was captured on camera in Deramakot Forest Reserve in 2010.
Since then, there have been only a handful of opportunistic sightings recorded in Deramakot Forest Reserve, Danum Valley Conservation Area and Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
This latest discovery provides another glimmer of hope that the otter can still be prevented from going extinct in Sabah.
However, they are still under threat from poaching for their meat and skins, pollution, habitat loss, and human-otter conflict.
The hairy-nosed otter, listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List, and as Schedule II of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment, 1997, is thought to be the world’s rarest otter.
The occurrence of this extremely rare species highlights the importance of the Kinabatangan as a “corridor of life”.
It connects the forests and mangroves around Tabin Wildlife Reserve with Deramakot Forest Reserve and other central forests of Sabah, creating a vital life line to otherwise isolated populations of endangered animals, such as clouded leopards, sunbears, Bornean elephants, Bornean orangutans and proboscis monkeys.
“The LKWS has become increasingly compressed and fragmented in recent years. Government plans for the Pan Borneo Highway expansion will create further division that prevents wildlife from travelling freely along the entire river.
“The ‘scrapped’ plans for a second bridge across the river, at the village of Sukau, seem to be reviving according to recent statements in the press and could increase fragmentation for such an endangered species like the hairy-nosed otter,” said Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of Danau Girang Field Centre and Professor at Cardiff University.
“We really hope that this is only a rumor because it would go against the recent State Action Plans for Bornean elephant, proboscis monkey and Sunda clouded leopard recently approved by the State Cabinet of Sabah,” added Goossens.
Local NGOs such as KOPEL and Hutan are trying to protect and restore the remaining forest fragments of the LKWS, and engage in community-led programmes to replant trees in the area in order to provide future habitat for the many endangered species that call it home.
“DGFC is also working hard to protect the forests of Sabah and save the wildlife that live there. We have recently launched a new project with KOPEL and Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute, called Regrow Borneo, raising money to plant and maintain native trees in degraded areas of the forest and former oil palm plantations, in order to provide a future for this vital habitat.
Our discovery that the hairy-nosed otter is still living here, along with species like orangutans and elephants, just further highlights the importance of the need to preserve what remains for our future generations,” concluded Goossens.
The footage of this incredibly rare encounter is available on DGFC Facebook and Instagram pages.