IMAGE: MONKS BLESS OTTER
Annette Olsson  /  Conservation International via AFP-Getty Images
Buddhist monks bless Dara, a hairy-nosed otter, as it is released Tuesda into its new home at the Phnom Tamau Wildlife Sanctuary in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
msnbc.com
updated 6/18/2008 1:47:34 PM ET 2008-06-18T17:47:34

A hairy-nosed otter — the world's rarest otter species and once thought extinct — has a new home in Cambodia, a Buddhist blessing and caretakers who are looking out for his future. But with a name like that, will he ever get a wife?

Experts with Conservation International, the International Otter Survival Fund and the Cambodian government sure hope so, since they're pinning hopes for a revived population on the frisky young male. The only known hairy-nosed otter in captivity, he's also got a friendlier moniker: Dara.

"Scientists recommend establishment of a breeding population in captivity to ensure survival of this species," Annette Olsson, CI’s research manager in Cambodia, said in a statement announcing Tuesday's house warming ceremony, which included a blessing by Buddhist monks. "Dara could be the founder of such a captive population, if and when we find him a wife, of course."

Females should be attracted to his moniker (Dara means "precious" in the Khmer language); his story — he was rescued after his mother was killed by a fisherman; and the large enclosure built for him at the Phnom Tamau Zoological Garden and Rescue Center, located near Phnom Penh.

Currently, Cambodia has healthy habitat for otters. "Cambodia is now a stronghold for many rare species that have been driven to extinction elsewhere in Southeast Asia" due to logging or agriculture, CI stated.

But scientists fear that climate change could alter the Mekong River's flooded forests, which are favored by the critters. Dara's cultivation is part of an effort to create a separate conservation area where the species could be protected from such change.

"Climate change may well lead to changes in flow regimes from the Mekong, along with the many hydro dams on the Mekong that that would mean the otter’s habitat — the flooded forests — would be mostly lost," said David Emmett, CI’s Cambodia director. "This means the species would either be lost or we need a protected area to support it."

IMAGE: HAIRY NOSED OTTER
Annette Olsson  /  Conservation International
Dara inspects his new digs Tuesday.
As a result, U.S.-based Conservation International is working with Cambodia to extend a fish sanctuary at Tonle Sap Lake to include vital otter habitat.

CI added that it's not just global warming that poses threats to the species.

"Otters in Asia are increasingly threatened by the illegal international fur trade," it stated. "They are also captured for pets or killed for use in traditional medicines."

"In the Tonle Sap region," CI added, "otters are often killed by poor fishermen who consider them pests because otters sometimes break their fishing nets and traps and steal their catch. At the same time, fisherman can sell the furs to dealers, who frequently will provide wildlife traps to the fisherman."

CI-sponsored programs at Tonle Sap include training local rangers, educating communities and schools and creating discussion groups with fishermen "to address human-otter conflicts."

Additional images about the otter program are online at www.conservation.org/otter_gallery 

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