/ 18 September 2008

‘Suddenly, two hairy-nosed otters!’

Field researchers have sighted the hairy-nosed otter, the world’s rarest, in a national park in southern Vietnam, a conservation group announced on Thursday.

Nguyen Van Nhuan, a research officer at Vietnam’s Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme, said he came face-to-face with two of the endangered animals in March while doing night observations in U Minh Ha National Park in the Mekong Delta.

The species was believed extinct in the 1990s, but has recently been seen in several South-East Asian countries. Nhuan’s was the first sighting in Vietnam since 2000.

”We could not believe our eyes,” Nhuan said. ”Suddenly, two hairy-nosed otters! I’ve never had a special feeling like that.”

An official of the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme said the group had hesitated to release news of the sighting for fear of revealing the otter’s presence to hunters, but had decided to publicise it now because of threats to the animal’s habitat.

Nhuan said the otters’ habitat was being fragmented by development in and around the 8 000ha U Minh Ha park. A state-owned forestry company engages in intensive planning and harvesting of melaleuca trees, and locals have admitted hunting the otters for fur, for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and to keep as pets.

The water quality in the park has been degraded by motorboats lured by new ecotourism projects, according to Nhuan.

”Due to ecotourism development, there’s a lot of rubbish,” Nhuan said. ”The ecotourism project is using a lot of land to build its headquarters, hotel rooms and a recreation area.”

Scientists know relatively little about hairy-nosed otters, which are notoriously shy and mostly nocturnal. They eat fish, frogs, reptiles, snakes and insects.

Conservationists hope to establish a corridor between U Minh Ha National Park and another nearby park, U Minh Thuong, to increase the otters’ protected habitat. — Sapa-dpa