They’re cute, they’re playful and they make a lot of noise, making Asian short-clawed otters one of the most common and popular species in many European zoos. Until recently, no-one thought their numbers were at risk, but recent surveys in South East Asia show that the species is rapidly being wiped out in the wild. Now New Forest Wildlife Park’s Jason Palmer is at the forefront of helping to conserve the captive population.
Jason, who has just been promoted to the post of Curator of New Forest Wildlife Park and its two sister parks Battersea Park Children’s Zoo in London and the Chestnut Centre in Derbyshire, is leading the way in establishing a European studbook for Asian short-clawed otters that will help to establish healthy breeding bloodlines for the species in zoos in the future.
Because they were relatively common in the wild, no-one had kept accurate records of captive Asian short-clawed otters since they became popular in UK zoos in the 1960s. So Jason has spent two years creating an accurate record book of the names, dates of birth, parentage, re-homings to other zoos and locations of captive Asian short-clawed otters in the UK since that time and has submitted a report of his findings to the global studbook keeper for Asian short-clawed otters worldwide.
He is also working in close association with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and hopes to become the official studbook keeper for Asian short-clawed otters in Europe. Official studbook keepers are dedicated individuals who keep detailed records of particular captive endangered species with a view to matching healthy breeding pairs and conserving the species for the future.
“Carol and Roger Heap, who own the Chestnut Centre and New Forest Wildlife Park, had some of the first breeding stock in the UK, and had kept accurate records, so that gave me a good start with the record book,” said Jason. “I tracked down the individual Asian short-clawed otters that came to the UK, what other zoos they were sent to and the names and locations of their descendants.
“A lot of the information was not recorded in other zoos so there were large gaps, but by painstaking research and by talking to people in other zoos who remembered the 1970s and 80s I have managed to build up a much more detailed picture.
“Zoos do not breed captive animals that are related to each other and if Asian short- clawed otters are decreasing in the wild, there will be a smaller genetic pool to draw on. So the records will enable us to look at every single Asian short-clawed otter in the UK and work out who it is related to and where it came from. It will benefit every zoo and aquarium in the UK and Europe.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s our duty to try to save every single species that is threatened – that’s why all zoo keepers do what they do.”
In his new role as Curator, Jason will be responsible for the animal collections at all three of Carol and Roger Heap’s wildlife parks. This will enable increased transfer of animals between the three parks, and hopefully, once official licenses are approved, an expanded breeding programme for captive endangered species.
“It’s enriching for the animals and better for individual species if we co-ordinate the work of the three parks more effectively,” said Jason. “In the longer term the public will see a greater variety of animals, younger breeding animals, and hopefully, more babies.”