Grace Yoxon knows her otters. She and her husband Paul started The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) on the Isle of Skye thirty years ago. "We have both loved wildlife since we were very young – well, as long as we can remember," she says. "We both studied geology at university and first went to Skye on a field trip. We fell in love with the island and moved here in 1980."
A few years later, they opened the Skye Environmental Centre and began teaching wildlife and geology courses. They didn't see their first otter until 1985, though. "We were looking at the rocks, and it came out and ate a fish in front of us!" she exclaims. Word got around that they "cared about animals. People started bringing us orphaned and injured creatures, and we had our first otter in 1988. So, now we were hooked!"
As time went by, the Yoxons began feeling more and more strongly that they "wanted to put something back into wildlife," particularly for the otters. That feeling led to the creation of the IOSF in 1993. The organization's reach goes far beyond the island, which is part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland: it works with otter rescuers and rehabilitators in thirty countries, including Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belarus, Georgia, Kenya, and Nigeria. The IOSF has also assisted people with otter cubs in fourteen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Guyana, Ecuador, Hungary, and Ireland. "We don't actually have agents or representatives in these countries but work very closely with people who are active in otter work."
The otter foster program is a very important part of the IOSF's work. At home on Skye, there are four otters available for adoption: two from Cumbria in northern England, one from Ireland, and one from the island itself. "The two from Cumbria are called Bubble and Squeak and are inseparable," Yoxon explains. "They were about eight-weeks-old when they were found alone in a garden. They were looked after first by the Aquarium of the Lakes and then transferred here. When they are big enough, they will go back to Cumbria."
But they're not the only otters in the foster line-up. There are others at the Cikananga wildlife rescue center in Indonesia. One of them, Ness, is an Asian small-clawed otter: he was "found as a cub and reared by someone who was originally from Scotland – hence, the name....]T]his species needs company, so he ended up at Cikananga, where they also have two other otters, which are rescued pets. Indonesia has a big trade in otters as pets – in fact, there are at least 800 people in the Jakarta area with pet otters, and most of these are taken from the wild."
And then there's Kamiya, the Congo clawless otter.
This is clearly a favorite story of Yoxon's. Only it doesn't start with Kamiya – it starts with another down-on-her-luck otter, Mazu. Back in 2010, the IOSF received an e-mail from Glen and Rita Chapman, a missionary couple in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A hunter had killed a female otter, orphaning her one-week-old cub. Human nature being the inconsistent thing it is, he'd wrapped the cub up in his shirt and brought her to the Chapmans, who were animal lovers. The IOSF quickly put together "a network of vets and other people with otter experience, especially in Africa, who could help." The Yoxons also mailed the missionaries a parcel containing baby bottles and teats, weighing scales, medications, and other necessities.
Mazu, the orphan otter, "became a local celebrity, and the chief said that the people must stop killing otters. Her fame spread, and even government officials came from Kinshasa to visit her." When the Chapmans went back to America on sabbatical, they left their little foundling with "two wonderful Congolese men," Delphin and Sico. Mazu gradually began spending more of her time in the jungle," and her visits became "very few and far between."
Two years later, the fund received an e-mail from another missionary family in the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo mentioned earlier). They had, as it turned out, "a young Congo clawless otter whose mother had been killed by a hunter, and one of their problems was that they were soon to go on sabbatical. It was like déjà vu!!" The IOSF and its network sprang into action. They were able to get permission for a cross-border transfer and fly Kamiya into the Democratic Republic. So, when the Chapmans returned from their sabbatical, they found Kamiya all settled and comfy in Mazu's old quarters. "She is now starting to explore more herself," Yoxon continues, "and hopefully soon will return to the wild like Mazu." And out of this tale of two otters have come two crucial victories - the Kikongo Otter Sanctuary and a growing "awareness in the Congo about otters."
The foster program is vital, but it's only one part of what the IOSF does. Other programs include Otter Watch, which enables them to coordinate sightings, and the Furget-Me-Not Campaign. The latter got kick-started in 2007, when a Romanian company actually contacted the organization about purchasing furs. Horrified by the request, the Yoxons began investigating the trade in otter pelts. They learned from a colleague that the problem was worse than they'd realized – that "for every tiger skin found, there are at least ten otter skins, and in some area, otters are locally extinct. This trade includes the rare hairy-nosed otter." Otters tend to be overlooked because the focus is usually on larger species.
"We urgently need more people working on the ground in these countries," Yoxon insists, "but there are very few otter workers in Asia. We also need local people doing the work rather than Westerners going in and saying how to do things." The IOSF's solution? Running workshops to train these people in otter survey work and conservation awareness. Case in point: a workshop held in Cambodia back in 2009. "Shortly afterwards, a fisherman handed in an otter he had found in his nets – he could have got about $200 for the pelt but had heard about the conservation work." This past March, another workshop was held in Indonesia, which led to the creation of an Indonesian Otter Network. China is next on the IOSF's docket. It is, Yoxon admits, "clearly going to be a huge challenge. But we are working on contacts and fund-raising and hoping to do this in 2014. There is a slight change in attitude in China: people are beginning to become aware of the environment and wildlife, and we need to build on this."
The political and the personal are entwined for most of us, and working with the otters has only deepened Yoxon's feeling for them. She shares some of their stories. One special character was Dax, an old male brought to them by a friend: "He had hardly any teeth, so, obviously, he was finding it hard to hunt. Clearly, he could never be released, so we put him in one of our large croft enclosures." Shortly afterwards, the Yoxons received Soli, a young male from the Isle of Islay. Male otters tend to be loners; so, when Soli was a little older, they put him in a pen alongside Dax's. But the two otters apparently had their own thoughts on the subject, and "when we went to check, Soli had moved in with Dax! Dax remained his ‘foster-dad' until Soli went back to Islay, and then he [Dax] lived out the remainder of his days with us."
I tell her how I read that after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, otters were among the few creatures that didn't put up a fight when the rescue workers were cleaning them up – that they would just lie there, totally unafraid and trusting. Has she ever seen that kind of behavior in the otters that she has worked with? "To be honest," Yoxon replies, "I always treat the otters as if they are going to bite!! They are wild animals and in a totally alien situation, and I can understand that they want to defend themselves. Even the small cubs can give you a good nip, and you can get some very nasty infections from the bites. Paul ended up in hospital after one such bite." At the sanctuary, they try to keep human contact to a minimum so that the otters "can be released as wild animals. This can make it difficult to catch them for release!"
Still, she concedes, it's possible that an ailing or hurt otter might allow a human to handle it without fighting back. They are, after all, pretty unpredictable. "Otters are constantly teaching you," she muses, "and you can never know it all. You believe you know how they act, and then they do something which you didn't expect. For example, we know otters can climb, but we don't expect to find them sitting up in a tree – and yet we have a photo from France of an otter in a tree!"
Otters symbolize many things to different cultures: laughter and curiosity; dynamic energy; feminine power and nurturing; grace; empathy; and trusting your inner knowing. Yoxon admits that she has never heard of the empathy connection. "But maybe," she says, mulling it over, "the actions of Dax in taking on Soli show how he could somehow feel that this young cub needed company, and although it was natural, he felt he had to do it." She's still a little hesitant on this point, though.
What she and her husband are passionately sure about, however, is that the otter is "an ambassador species to a first-class environment." It lives, feeds, and plays both on land and in the water; it's also at the top of the food chain. In protecting otters worldwide "through a combination of compassion and science," the IOSF is working to ensure a better world for all creatures, including man.