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Giant Otters in the Wild

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I think you all know me well enough to know that, as delighted as I was to be able to touch and talk with and photograph a hand-raised giant Amazon otter, I yearned to see them in the wild in Guyana. Maybe it's my birder conditioning, but it just doesn't feel real until you see a creature in its habitat, unrestrained and wary. And so I strained my eyes as we boated the Rupununi river, looking for that seal-like bump in the water that might prove to be the rarest animal in the Amazon.

We saw their dens--several of them--called "holts" in otterspeak. From one to five cubs may be born in each litter, and they may stay with their parents for two or more years, helping take care of younger siblings. They can't swim until they're about three weeks old, and at three to four months of age they begin to travel with their family. They nurse for nine months--compare that to your dog, who was probably weaned at eight weeks!A giant Amazon otter den, or holt. Rupununi River, Guyana, South America.

The three Guianas--Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname--are the last stronghold of the Giant Otter. Population densities here are still reasonably good; habitat is mostly undisturbed, and waters are unpolluted for the most part. People haven't gotten around to destroying Guyana's rainforest yet, the way they've destroyed so much of Brasil's. Mining isn't yet ruining Guyana's rivers with siltation and toxic runoff. Logging is underway, mostly selective cutting rather than the clear-cutting that has so scarred much of the rest of the Amazon. Agriculture is almost nonexistant along the rivers of the interior. All these things impact water quality and fragment the forested riverine habitat that giant otters need. We may be sure that all these things are coming to Guyana. But they haven't happened just yet. And so there are still giant otters in Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.

Survival of the giant otter in these three countries is vital to the survival of the species on this planet. Can ecotourism help? If it can be managed so as not to disrupt this diurnal mammal's life, perhaps. If you'd like to see a wild giant otter, you should go to Guyana, French Guiana, or Suriname and do that. You should do it soon.

A fantastic boatman--the best I've ever seen--spotted them first. I wish I had caught his name, had put on my portrait lens to grab a picture of him. I was too close to capture him with the telephoto, and too excited to switch lenses. I was enthralled by the river, the herons, the kingfishers, the possibility, however remote, of a wild giant otter. If I so much as felt for my camera, he'd slow the engine and sidle toward whatever he saw me studying. We were working in concert. He pointed, and said in a low voice, "There--on the log."
I couldn't see it in the brilliant light, but I focused on the log and prayed. And there it was, talking. My first wild giant otter.

Amazingly, it swam closer to the boat.
And there was another animal with it. And two more just downriver.
And they were squalling and calling and wailing and squeaking as giant otters do, and I was overcome.
Be careful, curious little one. Don't trust that every boat you see has only a teary Science Chimp in it.
Oh, thank you, suspicious goblin. You have made my year. Go in peace, and make more giant otters.


Awesome stuff! I have an otter post due this week but it totally pales into insignificance compared to this awesome series.

Oh yes, a good long life to that little goblin. I hope the world stays sane enough to maintain a habitat for these wild creatures.

I've been watching sea otters out the window here. They come to the same place in the bay and lounge lazily on their backs for hours at a time. Sometimes I wonder if they can see far enough to notice how blue the sky is these days.

Yeah, more otters!

*Loved* the NPR piece, especially the mockingbird scolding Bill.

Oh, the faces sprouting to look at you!
And to think you may have had the experience others will beg you to recall--"Tell us again about what the world was like when there were giant otters."

I'm tearing up and I wasn't even there. Thanks for telling such an eloquent story.

This has been a fabulous series of photos the last while, love the otters, love the stories.

On a totally unrelated note:

A moment of silence for the passing of Patrick McGoohan, aka The Prisoner. Julie, I think I remember you saying you were a Prisoner fan also in your younger years.

Wasn't he also the stern father in Thomasina? Oh, a sad day.

This is a beautiful post. All the otter posts were, but this one especially so. You continue to amaze me, too!

Saying good-bye to the Giant Otters is the was hard for me so I can imagine how your sadness/elation made you feel!

Another wonderful story. Told so well...

Thank you, Julie.

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