The giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) is the largest member of the Mustelidae (the weasel family), reaching an impressive 1.8 m (6 ft). It is endemic to South America, being found only along the banks of the Amazon, Orinoco and La Plata rivers. These rivers provide the otters with both a home and a source of food; the vast majority of a river otters diet is fish, with the remainder made of crustaceans and other river creatures. River otters traverse these waters using webbed feet, powerful tails, and warm, waterproof coats. It is these coats, and the desire to obtain them, that started the decline of these beautiful animals in the early 1900’s.
Giant river otters are unlike the rest of the weasel family in a few important ways. The foremost amongst these is that they are social animals, living in cohesive and cooperative family groups typically of around three to eight members (though they can be up to twenty), focussed around a dominant breeding pair. These groups establish a territory that they defend aggressively against other otters. They are fearless and inquisitive, with no natural predators, and so often approaching human beings. This makes them extremely easy to hunt, which is particularly devastating to them due to their late sexual maturity and complex social life.
Poaching of river otters for their velvety pelts peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when as many as 3000 pelts were being exported every year. This poaching completely decimated the giant river otter population, and it is estimated that in 1972 there were as few as twelve remaining. In 1973 all trade in specimens or parts was declared illegal, and in 1999 they were given ‘endangered’ status, providing further protections. This has allowed the population to grow once again, and is currently estimated to lie between one and three thousand.
The return of this species to its rightful place along the watercourses of South America is being hindered by deforestation, to the point where habitat destruction and degradation is the greatest threat to their survival. It is believed that they have lost 80% of their available habitat in the last few decades, and what remains is now broken apart. There are breeding programmes to help the survival of this species, but they are not a species that has ever had much success in captivity; there are no recorded cases of successfully raising giant otter cubs without the presence of the parents. However with the introduction of large conservation areas in countries such as Bolivia and Peru, there is certainly still hope for their survival.