Responsible tourism is a win-win for giant river otters and people

Every year tourists make the journey deep into the Amazon to see giant river otters in their natural habitat. Human activities – including uncontrolled tourism – have landed these fascinating creatures on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (they are currently Endangered), but responsible tourism has started to turn things around.

We caught up with Jessica Groenendijk, giant otter expert and author of the new book The Giant Otter: Giants of the Amazon, for a unique glimpse into otters and ecotourism – and how tourists can be part of the solution.

Can you tell us a bit about giant otters and why you’re so passionate about them?

The three most striking things about giant otters are their size, their throat markings and their social nature. Giant otters are as long as you are tall and are the largest of the world’s 13 otter species (though not the heaviest). Each animal sports a unique pale pattern on its throat or chest; very convenient for researchers who wish to identify individuals and follow their complex life histories!

Each otter’s pattern of throat markings is unique, helping researchers identify them. Credit: Kristi Foster.

I say complex, because giant otters usually live in family groups – a breeding pair and their offspring – of up 16 members, though 3 to 6 is the average. It’s their sociality that makes them so appealing. That and their constant activity. Observing a family of giant otters is like watching a TV soap. Individuals have distinctive characters; siblings play and help to look after each other but also squabble over prey items; older offspring, like human teenagers, start going off on their own, experimenting with their growing independence … and they all unite when faced with a predator like a black caiman.

Giant otters may not be classically pretty, but they have an unparalleled zest for life and are peerless in the water. And the cubs are adorable!

Could you give us a brief overview of your work with giant otters?

Together with my husband, I worked for seven years for the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) in southeastern Peru as Coordinators of their Giant Otter Research and Conservation Project. During that time, I was also the Giant Otter Coordinator for the IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group.

After a stint in Zambia (working with black rhinos) and the UK (publishing our giant otter data), I returned to Peru and now work for San Diego Zoo Global Peru as Communications Coordinator for the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. San Diego Zoo Global runs its own Giant Otter Conservation Program for which I’m an advisor. Happily, I get to visit Cocha Cashu regularly and spend as much time as possible with the resident giant otter family.

What threats are otters currently facing?

In the past, hunting for the pelt trade was by far the giant otter’s greatest. Fortunately, these days there is little demand for giant otter skins or other body parts. Let’s hope, and ensure, it stays that way.

But giant otters do have other problems. Habitat destruction and contamination (think deforestation, dams, river channelling, oil spills, and mercury pollution resulting from gold mining) are the most serious threats, but conflict with fishermen, who perceive otters as competitors for scarce resources, is becoming increasingly important. Trafficking, especially of vulnerable cubs, though occurring on a small scale so far, is widespread. (People who think a giant otter will make a good pet are gravely mistaken!)

Small-scale gold mining on the Madre de Dios River, Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Giant otters are sensitive to disturbance, especially when raising young cubs, and tend to avoid water bodies with motorised transport or heavy traffic. Since many of the Amazon’s rivers are also its highways, this leads to populations becoming isolated from each other.

Giant river otters were one of the founding wildlife ‘pillars’ on which tourism in Manu was built. How has tourism impact otters since then? How is the situation today?

I would say the giant otter ranks almost as high as the jaguar as the animal tourists most want to see when they visit the Amazon. In the 90s, our predecessors in the FZS Giant Otter Project began to observe behavioural signs, including reduced reproductive success and changes in habitat use patterns, that the giant otter population in Manu National Park was suffering from the impact of uncontrolled tourism.

Nowadays, and certainly inside Peru’s protected areas where most giant otter populations are found, tourism is generally well managed and it’s a win-win scenario for all concerned.

In terms of tourism, what’s being done to help?

People talk of managing wildlife, but, really, it’s the activities of people that need managing. Nature tourism is no exception. We established general guidelines for responsible otter tourism and designed and implemented site-specific management plans.

Zoning of giant otter habitats is a particularly important tool. Otters need disturbance-free areas in which to raise their cubs, so creating a Refuge Zone in that part of a giant otter habitat where they consistently use dens for resting and cub-rearing is vital.

Viewing giant otters from a safe distance is one way to ensure tourism doesn’t negatively affect them. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Other strategies (all of which are discussed in detail in my book) include replacing single-hulled, small canoes with a large, shared catamaran that is operated under a booking system, or, where feasible, replacing boats with low impact, fixed-location observation points such as hides and towers.

What role can tourists play?

Well-informed and understanding tourists can play a vital role in giant otter conservation. Such tourists are aware their visits might have an impact on giant otters and respect the regulations required to protect them. They don’t consider these regulations to be unnecessary restrictions and inform fellow travellers about them.

They prefer to travel with one of the recommended eco-tour organisers and appreciate responsible travel guides. When they go home, they share their experiences and inspire others to care about wildlife and travel responsibly. And they give donations to support research and conservation projects in the areas they visit.

Most importantly, tourists generate local revenues and employment opportunities, and help politicians understand that nature is valued for its own sake and should be protected.

En route to Lago Sandoval in Tambopata National Reserve, Peru. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Do you have any suggestions for where/how to see otters responsibly? Any other favourite wildlife in Peru?

Many tourism companies operating in Manu National Park and in the Tambopata National Reserve are well established and responsibly visit popular giant otter habitats such as Cocha Salvador (Manu), Lago Sandoval (near Puerto Maldonado), and Tres Chimbadas (Tambopata). The Brazilian Pantanal is otter-heaven, but, in my opinion, any tours that attract otters by artificially feeding them should be avoided. I’ve heard the Xixuau Amazon Ecolodge, on the Rio Jauaperi in the Brazilian Amazon, is doing good things for giant otters and community-based ecotourism.

A caiman at dawn at Sandoval Lake. Credit: Kristi Foster

Otters are best observed from a respectable distance, using binoculars. We all want great wildlife photos but rather than spend your time observing otter antics through a tiny viewfinder and wanting to get closer for the perfect shot, I recommend you focus (pun intended) on making the most of the experience itself and take home fantastic memories instead. As for other favourite wildlife in Peru and Amazonia… where do I start?!

What do you hope your new book will achieve?

I have tried to make the book as appealing as possible to a wide audience while also ensuring that it’s a useful resource for otter researchers and conservationists. So it’s full of otter facts and latest research findings, and includes excerpts from field notes, personal anecdotes, informative figures, and, of course, stunning photos by award-winning photographers. I hope it will raise awareness of the giant otter’s needs and inspire readers – young and old alike – to care, to try to help this Endangered species and its home. We can each of us contribute towards a brighter future for the Amazon giant and I hope this book shows why we should do our best, and how we can go about it.

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You can learn more about Jessica’s book The Giant Otter on her website or order a copy from Pen & Sword Books. For more about Jessica’s work with giant otters and ecotourism, follow her at @wildwordsauthor.