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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless credited to others.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2024







Hairy-nosed Otter

Fig 1

Fig 2

Fig 3

Fig 4

Fig 5


Family : Mustelidae
Species : Lutra sumatrana

Head-body length : 60-80 cm
Tail length : 37-50 cm
Weight : 7-8 kg

The Hairy-nosed Otter Lutra sumatrana is perhaps the least studied and rarest of the world's 13 species of otter. It is believed to be at risk of extinction due to historically heavy hunting pressure for its pelt and meat, especially in the northern part of its range (Vietnam,  Cambodia) and loss of habitat throughout its range.

Historical records suggest it once occurred in a variety of habitats including coastal regions, large rivers, peat swamp forests in lowland areas, and rocky streams in hilly or montane areas up to 1800 metres elevation.

In Peninsular Malaysia there are only two formally documented records of the species since the 1960's, both roadkills in areas near lowland peat swamp forest. The images presented here, taken by the author in May and September 2013 in the protected area of Taman Negara, comprise the first published records of the species in Peninsular Malaysia since the 1990's and the first records for Taman Negara. The discovery of the Hairy-nosed Otter in the national park is encouraging for the survival of the species as a whole.

The rivers in Taman Negara are pristine lowland rivers which pass through undisturbed dipterocarp forest : such habitats were once widespread in Peninsular Malaysia but are now much reduced as a result of deforestation and conversion of land to other uses.

Both lone individuals shown here were observed exploring river banks : they did not appear to be searching for fish or other aquatic fauna, rather these otters were showing great interest in the river banks themselves.

Based on studies in Thailand and Vietnam this species appears to consume a variety of prey : in addition to fish (probably its main food source in some areas) it may also eat water snakes, frogs, lizards, insects, crabs, small mammals etc.

The external characteristics which distinguish this species are an extremely sleek, sinuous body form, a relatively flattened head, somewhat rough fur, a creamy-white chin, throat and lips. The fur along the side of the neck and upper torso is medium brown, which contrasts with the pale fur of the throat and the dark fur on the rest of the body. The rhinarium (the moist, exposed part of the nose) is covered in short hair. The tail is flattened and oval in cross-section, and the feet are fully webbed.

Wright et al (2008) includes the following countries in its historical range : Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Some researchers fear that its current distribution is now highly localized and fragmented in these territories.

Fig 1 : Searching a river bank beneath a fallen tree.

Fig 2 : Side view, showing a sleek, slender profile with rather coarse, grizzled fur.

Fig 3 : A typical pristine lowland river in Taman Negara, in the heart of the Malay Peninsula : this particular stretch appears to be favoured by the Hairy-nosed Otter.

Fig 4 : Close-up showing the relatively flattened head, creamy-white neck, throat and lips.

Fig 5 : This lone individual briefly emerged into full view on a fallen tree trunk.

References : M2, M3, M5

Wright, LC, Olsson, A and Kanchanasaka, B (2008). A Working Review of the Hairy-Nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana). IUCN Otter Spec. Group Bull. 25 (1): 38 - 59

Baker, N. (2013). New Records of Hairy-Nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana) in Peninsular Malaysia. IUCN Otter Spec. Group Bull. 30 (2): 112 - 118. [pdf]

Conservation Links :
IUCN Otter Specialist Group
International Otter Survival Fund