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Giants of the Madre de Dios

I thought I’d share with you (a slightly adapted) part of the introduction to a book I co-wrote with my husband, Frank Hajek, in 2006. The book is no longer officially for sale, though used copies are being offered on Amazon (amusingly, one is listed at a bargain price of US$ 263.64!). We have soft cover and hardback versions at home, in Spanish and English, which we sell at conferences or give away to otter researchers. Giants of the Madre de Dios is richly illustrated with photos taken by Frank, Peruvian photographer Walter Wust, and winner of the 1992 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, Andre Bärtschi.

“I remember our first encounter with a giant otter family vividly. It was in September 1998, while we were slowly making our way up a small tributary of the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) River in southeastern Peru, surveying its banks for signs of the otters. We had been traveling for five days without sighting a single individual, although we had spotted several fresh dens that same morning and knew they were around. Or had we somehow passed them? Had they noticed our progress upriver and neatly taken a shortcut overland to avoid us?


As we motored past a small beach just before a sharp bend in the river, someone pointed out a series of giant otter tracks at the water’s edge. We stopped to investigate. The tracks led up to a latrine that had been so recently used, insects had not yet arrived on the scene. Circular sweep marks and bedraggled vegetation, leaves still wet, told the story of how the otters had busily scent marked the beach. They could not be far so we decided to row upriver rather than use the motor.


Advancing laboriously against the current, we rounded the curve… and there they were. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst of a group of five giant otters. They surged towards us from all directions, periscoping - craning their heads and necks out of the water - and snorting repeatedly, clearly alarmed to have been approached so unexpectedly. We kept as low a profile as is possible in a twelve metre canoe, avoiding abrupt movements and saying little. Gradually, their focus seemed to turn inwards: the otters began milling about, as if confused. Without warning, one animal uttered a harsh, wavering scream and suddenly the whole family let loose a burst of sound. The volume at such close quarters was stunning and sent shivers down my spine. A sixth otter who must have been hunting by himself further upriver, wailed in response, swimming rapidly towards the family. Once reunited, they all headed downriver, giving us a wide berth and looking back frequently before disappearing from view.


It was a deeply impressive experience and, from that moment, we were hooked.


Giant otters are exceptionally well adapted to life in rivers, lakes and swamps of the tropical lowlands of South America. Known as the 'river wolf' in Peru, it is both the largest (at between one and a half and two metres in length, they are as long as a person is tall) and arguably the most social of the world's thirteen otter species. Each individual has a distinctive pale throat pattern, as unique as your fingerprint, by which it can be identified, thereby greatly facilitating field research. Giant otters are top carnivores of the rainforest and have little to fear... except Man.


Once abundant and widely distributed, giant otters became the target of the international pelt trade during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s and were hunted to the brink of extinction. Although trade bans came into effect in the mid-1970s and the species is protected both by national legislation as well as by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, only small, isolated populations remain. Today, the single greatest threat is habitat loss and degradation. Giant otters face severe pressures exerted by widespread and increasing human colonization, as well as intensive exploitation of natural resources by man, leading to the contamination and destruction of formerly pristine rainforest and wetland systems. Today, the species is endangered throughout its distribution range.


Our September 1998 giant otter encounter signaled the beginning of our own involvement as coordinators of a giant otter conservation project managed by the Frankfurt Zoological Society. In the belief that we only protect what we love, and we only love what we know, in 2006 Frank and I wrote and published Giants of the Madre de Dios, a synthesis of the 15 years of research and conservation action carried out since the start of the project in 1990.


Giants of the Madre de Dios begins with a day in the life of a giant otter family and then, in Chapter Two, accompanies a disperser during the trials and tribulations of a year spent looking for a mate and a home of its own. Chapter Three follows the Madre de Dios river, from its source in the high Andes to the border with Bolivia, a river that links several important giant otter populations and shapes the lives of gold miners, loggers, native peoples, and traders alike. Chapter Four describes a variety of conservation actions that have benefited the otters over the last decades, many of which were undertaken, supported or catalysed by the project. Finally, in Chapter Five we outline challenges, and propose steps that we can take, to further conservation of the species in southeastern Peru.”

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