There is little information on otters in Lao although there are three reported species: smooth-coated otter Lutrogale perspicillata, Asian small-clawed otter Aonyx cinereus and Eurasian otter Lutra lutra. It is also possible that the hairy-nosed otter Lutra sumatrana is present as it has been found in neighbouring countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Viet Nam and Cambodia).
There were formerly only two recent sources of information on otters in Lao. In 2016 Project Anoulak, a local NGO, produced a report on a preliminary camera-trap survey in the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area. In addition to camera–trap surveys, they interviewed local people who provided information on two species locally: ‘one with feet like dogs, small and dark, mostly seen in groups of 3–5 individuals’ (the Asian small-clawed otter), and ‘one with feet like ducks, large, mostly seen in pairs’ (the smooth-coated otter). They did not receive reports of the Eurasian otter. The other information came from the Wildlife Conservation Society in April 2018: they confirmed that rangers encounter otters relatively often on one river in the south-east of Nam Et Phou Louey National Park, but they do not know of which species.
The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) has been holding a series of workshops to train the next generation of otter researchers in Asia, where there is a serious problem with illegal trade in otters, both for furs and as pets. The workshops cover field techniques for otter research, public awareness programmes, law enforcement and general conservation issues.
The latest workshop was held at Nakai, Lao, in April 2018. This included a field visit to Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area, in an area where otters are known to be present, led by Chanthalaphone Nanthavong of Project Anoulak. During this trip signs of Asian small-clawed otters were found, together with the spraint and footprints of the Eurasian otter. This is believed to be the first time the latter has been recorded in the Protected Area and it also confirms the presence of the species in Lao.
The workshop brought together 36 people, mostly from the Agriculture and Forestry Office, who are responsible for conservation issues in Lao. At the end of the workshop a Lao Otter Network was formed, linked to the IOSF Asian Otter Conservation Network, which has developed from previous workshops. The Lao Otter Network will identify priority areas for field surveys, conduct social surveys to assess any negative human–otter interactions, carry out more education and public awareness programmes, and investigate the scale of the illegal trade in otter furs and body parts and as pets. Chitpasong Senthammavong, of the Wildlife Management Division, was appointed the Network co-ordinator. As part of the workshop Paul Yoxon of IOSF met with Asoka Rasphone, Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is supportive of otter conservation and the new Lao Otter Network.
We are grateful to the Anderson Rogers Foundation Inc., Action for the Wild, Nurtured by Nature, and the Rufford Foundation for financial support for the workshop. The full report on the workshop is available at http://www.otter.org/documents/InternationalWorkshops/InternationalWorkshop_Laos.pdf.