(Photos courtesy of Diana J. Limjoco)

World, it’s about high time you meet the “cutest mammal” in the province—the Palawan otter (Aonyx cinereus). Don’t be shy. Say hello!

Palawan, on top of being a global tourist destination, is a mecca of biodiversity that serves as a refuge to hundreds of marine and terrestrial threatened species. From the world’s most poached mammal (pangolin) to the world’s most aggressive crocodile species, Palawan maintained to be the “man and biosphere preserve”, as declared by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO).

Unbeknownst to many, Palawan serves as the only place in the Philippines that homes the Asian small-clawed otter, a semiaquatic mammal claimed to be the smallest otter species in the world, according to some leading experts.

An under-studied mammal

Endemic to the province, the Palawan otter is oftentimes overlooked in environmental protection and conservation. In fact, little to no scientific studies were conducted to determine its taxonomy, characteristics, distribution, and habitat.

Jessa Garibay-Yayen, co-founder of Centre for Sustainability (CS) and a sitting member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) otter specialist group, said that lobbying to strengthen the protection of the Palawan otter was “challenging because the data was very limited and they are under-studied”.

Palawan otters live near coastal wetlands and mountain streams. Their fur is typically brown, sometimes cream-colored with a reddish tinge; their undersides are paler brown, and the edge of upper lips, chin, throat, and sides of neck and face are grayish-white. Their claws are reduced to small rudiments that do not project beyond the tips of the digits, which makes their tracks distinguishable from those of other otters by the absence of claw marks. Females are known to be a little smaller compared to male otters.

Habitat for otters

Palawan otter was first seen in Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve, one of the oldest and most diverse forests in the country, in 2015 by a group of scientists. They were accidentally caught on camera traps during a rapid biodiversity assessment.

The Asian small-clawed otter is widespread among southeast Asian countries and is native to the Philippines (Palawan), Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam; and has been introduced to the United Kingdom.

“Otter population is now declining rapidly due to habitat loss and the decrease of quality of the wetlands,” Garibay-Yayen said.

However, she reiterated that their number in the wild is yet to be determined due to a lack of population study.

Cuteness is a double-edged sword

The rise of social media was considered the “biggest impediment” for the Asian small-clawed otters. Being highly charismatic, they were also being poached as pets, which later causes psychological disturbances to them as they were known to be deeply social among family groups.

“The biggest impediment in otter is that they are super cute, fuzzy and soft that people want to have them as pets. In reality, it is not ideal because it affects their psychological behavior and they become aggressive,” she explained.

A rising trade for otter cafés in Japan was claimed to be orchestrated under a bloody operation. Cubs were being separated from their parents, which were then killed.

“A cub will be taken out of a group of 12-16 otters, and the parents were killed. People go to those cafés just to take a selfie and pet otters, not knowing that the reality is that you’re taking the whole family. The selfies come at a very high cost,” she added.

Otters were also claimed to being poached for meat as demand rise in the exotic market industry.

Conservation efforts

The Asian small-clawed otters were categorized under “vulnerable” species by the IUCN in 2015 based on over 30 percent decline in global numbers for the past 30 years. They were reported to have disappeared in western Himalayan foothills, southern China, southeastern India, and some parts of Myanmar, which were highly attributed to poaching for local and international markets, and, more recently, as pets sold via the internet.

Scientific expeditions and conservation efforts have long since been established for the Palawan otters’ conservation and protection.

A strategic move to push for its status update from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Flora and Fauna Species was made in June 2019. An updated status would mean that international trade would be prohibited which would enforce strengthened protection against illegal wildlife trafficking.

“We had a very challenging task,” she recalled the politics of lobbying pointing out that, “The nomination process, the collating of supporting data, and looking for other organizations from other countries to tag-team with was difficult because they mostly are unaware of the [Asian small-clawed] otters, so we had to lay the groundwork.”

The CITES formally recognized and acknowledged the bid for an Appendix I status of the Asian small-clawed otters in August 2019.