Notes from the field: China research trip 2019

Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson of the Seattle Aquarium traveled to the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve in China for a four-day conference in April about worldwide otter conservation. Come along as she describes her trip. 

 DAYS 1–4: April 5–8 

Ready to go and excited to travel to China to attend the 14th International Otter Congress, hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN advises organizations on how to facilitate human needs alongside nature conservation and is responsible for the Red List of Threatened Species™, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the conservation status of animal, fungi and plants species.  

We’ll be in the Sichuan province in the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve, China’s largest and most successful protected area and home to iconic wildlife species such as panda, snub-nosed monkey, takin cattle and the rare Eurasian otter. 

Traveling involved a long, delayed flight to Beijing, another flight to Chengdu, and a seven-hour bus ride to the reserve. There was no potable water in any hotel in China, so to try to lessen our single-use water bottle consumption but stay hydrated on our journey, we brought filtering water bottles that removed many harmful chemicals, bacteria and viruses. Now 5pm local time, we were greeted by a very beautiful and peaceful setting. It was good to finally be at the Otter Congress, and we checked into our room, had a wonderful Chinese-food dinner and went to bed early.  


Shawn used her filtering reusable water bottle the entire trip in China.
Shawn used her filtering reusable water bottle the entire trip in China. 
Entrance to the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve conference center.

Entrance to the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve conference center.
DAY 5: April 9

On our first full day at the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve, the Otter Congress formally began. We discussed the status of otters in China, Southeast Asia, Europe and elsewhere. In some areas they are recovering and doing well, such as throughout Europe, the U.S. and Singapore, but in other areas their numbers are declining, such as in India, Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia. Next came oral presentations, and I spoke about the global sea otter conservation strategy that I helped write with co-authors Angela Doroff and Nicole Duplaix. The formal activities ended at 6pm with a dinner ceremony complete with dancers and singers. It was quite a spectacle! After dinner I participated in a three-hour IUCN otter-specialist group management meeting discussing sea otters and their conservation status. It was definitely a full day, but a good one.

DAY 6: April 10

Day two of the Congress. The main focus of the meeting was how to gain otters improved conservation status and protection throughout China and Asia as we’ve done in Europe and North America. There have been improvements in otter conservation in many parts of Asia in recent years but there’s still work to do on habitat protection and illegal trade. There were also talks about otter ecology, behavior, genetics and taxonomy.

I gave my second talk of the Congress on sea otter genetics and taxonomy. It was well received and one of only three talks at the Congress about sea otters. The day ended with break-out meetings about North American otters and how we could do more to conserve all of our otters throughout the region.


Shawn at the podium about to give her second talk.
Shawn at the podium about to give her second talk.
DAY 7: April 11

This morning we had a field trip to the river. We broke into groups of eight or nine delegates and walked along the reserve’s otter transects. We looked for signs of the Eurasian otter, Lutra lutra, such as fecal scats, called spraints, and footprints. We found scats from takin, the local wild cattle species, crested porcupine, leopard, wild boar and civet, but no sign of Lutra lutra.


Otter Congress delegates find wildlife scat along the river.
Otter Congress delegates find wildlife scat along the river.


After lunch we were once again in a conference room for a workshop discussing IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. We discussed the parameters for increasing or decreasing the conservation status of a species. After the Red List workshop, we attended a workshop about the IUCN’S Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas. It’s a new list that describes conservation success stories and how far a species has to go for full recovery. The evening ended with a night safari, where we rode a bus slowly through the reserve with flashlights to spot the wildlife that tend to be more active at night. We saw takin, muntjac (a small deer), civet, wild boar and badger. It was a great day to see the wildlife of Tangjiahe!

DAY 8: April 12

The last day of formal activities. There were presentations most of the day, with many of the talks again focusing on the status of wild otters in Asia, India and Southeast Asia. The countries in Asia and Southeast Asia are becoming more organized and concerned about otter conservation, so there is hope. After the final talk ended at 3pm, we continued to meet new friends and network over a wonderful dinner in a local village, figuring out new ways to collaborate and conserve otters. It was a very successful 14th International Otter Congress.

DAYS 9 AND 10: April 13 and 14

We left at the first hint of dawn on the bus back to Chengdu, trying to see our last takin or muntjac or even a glimpse of the elusive Eurasian otter. After arriving in Chengdu, we spent the rest of the day and the next enjoying exceptional meals and visiting pandas and a museum. It was a delicious, fun and educational end to our trip.


Shawn Larson

Curator of Conservation Research, Seattle Aquarium

IUCN Sea Otter Species Coordinator


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