The Otters of Borneo


Otters are amongst the most instantly lovable animals in the world. Without ever seeing a living otter, most people would attest to how adorable they are, how their fluffy fur makes them most huggable, and they are the most playful of animals. There is no doubt that few wild animals have the appeal otters have. They are indeed the most playful of animals. Even the ancient versions of their name means to play. Scientists have discovered that otters really do play amongst themselves just for the fun of it. Instead of lying still and doing nothing, they engage in playful fights, jump and run around the place and basically entertain themselves constantly. Why do they do this? The only answer would be, why not?

What most of us do not know is that the is not one, but three otters on Borneo. One is big, really big, with huge feet. This is the smooth otter, and they can grow to over 1 metre long, and weigh over 10kg. Smooth otters live almost exclusively along the coasts, and freely swim in the surf along beaches. They live in family groups of up to 8 members. It is called the smooth otter because it’s fur is shorter than all other otters, making its pelt the smoothest of all the otters. All otters have historically been hunted for their pelts, which are both waterproof and warm.

The second otter on Borneo is the hairy-nosed otter, which is smaller than the smooth otter. This is a dark coloured otter, with fine hairs growing on its nose, hence its name. This otter is one of the rarest of the otters, and until recently, was thought to have disappeared from Borneo. We now know that they still exist. This species appears to be a deep forest species, almost never seen. They appear to prefer swampy habitats like peat swamp forests. Hairy-nosed otters live in smaller families of 4 to 5 members.

The third otter is the smallest. This is the small-clawed otter, and is the most commonly seen otter throughout Borneo. They can be found in almost any habitat, from villages, ricefields, all rivers and even heading up mountains. This small otter lives in large family groups, sometimes seen in groups of over 10 animals. These dark grey animals are sometimes considered a nuisance, especially around fish farms and ponds. Keep fish in a pond and these otters will pay you a visit and help themselves to your fish!

As with almost all Borneo’s animals, there is always some mystery associated with them. Otters are no exception. In the museum in Kuching, Sarawak, there are two otter skins, labelled Eurasian Otter. These were added to the collection in 1959 and 1961, from the Bario highlands. Apart from these two skins, there has not been any record of this species on Borneo. Where did these skins come from? Were they brought in by traders from somewhere else? Is there an undiscovered population of the Eurasian otter up in the central highlands of Borneo? Only time will tell. If the Eurasian otter is found on Borneo, it would be news indeed. This would be an extension of this species from mainland Asia all the way down to Borneo.

Regardless, the fact that Borneo has three species of otters is wonderful. These adorable animals are in many ways a reflection of the inhabitants of Borneo. Fun-loving, water-loving and ferocious hunters, just like the natives of Borneo. They depend on clean water like the river-living folk all across Borneo. Sensitive animals, yet resilient in character. Their appearance of a sleek vision moving through the water is contrasted with a totally different appearance when dry, all fluffed up and cuddly.

The otters are one of only two mammals (the other is the Beaver of north America) which have totally adapted themselves to an aquatic existence. Their webbed feet are unique in the mammalian world. They swim like no other animal, effortless, elegant and mesmerising. If you’ve ever had the luck to see wild otters, you will recall the smile they brought to your face. You can’t help but smile and think to yourself: wow, what a joy they are to watch, and they make me feel good. May otters always be a part of this great island of Borneo, and continue to bring smiles to all.