Sighting of rare otter raises hope for its kind

A remotely operated camera captured this endangered hairy-nosed otter in a forest reserve in Malaysia's Sabah state.SABAH WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A photograph snapped on Borneo island of an otter once thought to be extinct in Malaysia has raised hopes that there's still time to save the creature, an official said Monday.

The image of the hairy-nosed otter — sometimes called Asia's rarest — was captured by a remote-controlled camera planted by scientists in a forest reserve and could bolster conservationists' efforts to seek stronger government protection for threatened species in Borneo's biologically diverse jungles.

The otter derives its name from hairs at the end of its nose. It has mainly brown fur, a flat tail and a whitish chin. Its population has declined mainly because of hunting for its fur and meat as well as the loss of its wetland habitats to human development.

The photograph was taken in Malaysia's Sabah state in the second half of 2008, but international scientists needed nearly two years to study it before confirming it was indeed the hairy-nosed otter, said Laurentius Ambu, director of the Sabah Wildlife Department. Researchers from the wildlife department, Sabah's Forest Department and the Germany-based Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research have reviewed the photo.

Indigenous to Southeast Asia, the otter was once believed to be extinct in Malaysia and severely threatened elsewhere. Sightings in Vietnam and Cambodia several years ago have raised hopes for its survival, Ambu said.

"This is a historic finding. We know this species is very rare, but we don't know how rare," he told The Associated Press.

The otter was last spotted on Borneo in 1997, when it was found dead on a road in the sultanate of Brunei. The species has not been seen in Malaysia for more than 100 years, Ambu said.

Sabah state is home to endangered animals including the pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros and orangutan. Wildlife activists say their numbers have dwindled in recent decades because of illegal poaching and the loss of jungles cut down for timber and development.