The Eurasian Otter Conservation Program
The Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra), also referred to as the Israeli Otter, is an adorable small aquatic mammal. In Israel the native Eurasian Otter population underwent a dramatic decline during the 1960s due to illegal hunting, water pollution, depletion of water sources and the disappearance of wetland habitats. Recently the regional status of our otters has been categorized as “Critically Endangered”.
A comparison of the 2012 population survey with that undertaken in 2009 indicates the stability of the Israeli otter population in the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee but the decline of the population in the Beit She’an Valley and the disappearance of the species in all other habitats in Israel. River otters play an important role in the aquatic ecosystem because, through predation, they help control the populations of other species. They are also a key indicator of the health of the ecosystem - if the otter population is declining it means the ecosystem is not healthy. A flourishing river otter population will positively impact the overall health of Israel's aquatic habitats.
Comprehensive research is needed to evaluate the colonization-extinction processes of the otter population in Israel, and their probability of survival in different areas, as well as an evaluation of suitable habitats for re-introductions in the future. The Biblical Zoo has adopted the otter as a flagship species to raise awareness of the preservation of Israel’s wetlands. Working together with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), we established a breeding enclosure for Eurasian Otters some years ago. Genetic studies on four sub-populations within Israel (Galilee, Golan, Hula Valley, Harod) show that alleles exist in the Israeli population that are absent in European populations. These alleles may be the result of natural selection, or they may be the result of random processes (“drift”) often occurring in small populations. For this reason, the decision was taken to capture local individuals to populate this breeding center with a view to reintroducing the offspring into the wild.
Following the capture and subsequent deaths in captivity (over the course of two years) of three male otters for reasons unknown – presumably stress factors (autopsies failed to yield any concrete results) - it was decided that captive-bred Eurasian Otters will now be imported from Europe to continue the breeding and reintroduction program in Israel. Procedures will be therefore be implemented from west to east to avoid genetic contamination if the European genome cannot be successfully matched to local conditions. In 2014, we received our first captive-bred male otter from an Eastern European zoo and we are hopeful that the program will now be able to commence. To improve our chances of success, we have consulted with a team of Dutch scientists who successfully implemented a similar breeding and reintroduction program in the Netherlands.
As things stand, it is only a matter of time until the local population becomes extinct and so dramatic measures must be taken if otters are to be saved in Israel.