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How Tibetan Buddhism and conservation efforts helped Eurasian otters thrive in a city of 200,000 people (commentary)

In China, where most rivers are deprived of large mammals due to habitat destruction and over-exploitation, a healthy population of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) was recently found to thrive right in a city of over 200,000 people, due mainly to the joint support of conservation initiatives and Tibetan Buddhism.

Yushu, located on the eastern Tibetan Plateau, is the capital city of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Two rivers — Zhaqu and Changu — flow through the city to join the Tongtian River in the east, the headwater of the Yangtze river. During a one-month survey, researchers from Shanshui Conservation Center recorded Eurasian otter activities 66 times with seven camera traps. Over 200 spraints (otter dung) and footprints were also discovered along 45 kilometers (about 28 miles) of river, indicating a thriving population of the species.

The Eurasian otter used to be heavily hunted for its pelt. As it is now listed under CITES Appendix I and the Schedules of Nationally Protected Fauna and Flora in China, stricter law enforcement has reduced hunting. Even so, its population continues to decline, according to the IUCN, and the species has become locally extinct in most of its former range in many parts of the country. Being a top predator of the freshwater ecosystem, the Eurasian otter is susceptible to pollution and habitat destruction, both of which are common in most waterbodies in China. So, what spared this population in Yushu from the fate of disappearing?

Overlooking the Yushu city from the Kyegu Monastery (结古寺). Photo Credit: Chen PENG.

One unique fact about Yushu is that over 95 percent of its population is Tibetan. Consequently, this area is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhist traditions, which support the conservation of individual organisms and habitats in many ways.

A fundamental component of Buddhism is love and compassion for all living beings. It comes from the idea of reincarnation and the belief that an animal could be one’s parent, sibling, or friend in another life. While meat consumption is necessary for local herders to survive in the harsh climate of Tibet, many choose to eat larger animals like yaks, so that fewer lives are taken. For this reason, many locals do not eat fish or other aquatic creatures, securing ample food sources for the otters.

Also, the locals believe that cutting trees on sacred mountains will offend mountain gods, and, similarly, polluting water sources will infuriate the water gods. By protecting sacred natural sites in Tibetan Buddhism, people are also conserving important wildlife habitats.

What’s more, the demand for otter pelts in the Tibetan region has been drastically reduced in recent years due to the advocacy of religious leaders against the use of animal fur.

Baima Wenci, a staff member of the Shanshui Conservation Center, placing a camera trap outside an otter den. Photo Credit: Yifan (Flora) HE.

With pro-nature cultural traditions combined with effective conservation initiatives, the chances of survival for otters become even higher. Since the late 20th century, the Chinese government has set conservation as a priority in the Sanjiangyuan region, a 316,000-square-kilometer (more than 78-million-acre) area that includes the headwaters of three great Asian rivers: the Yangtze, the Yellow, and the Mekong. Over 40 percent of the land in this area has been designated as the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, and a series of conservation projects are in place, including grassland restoration, a firearm ban, and anti-poaching measures. Being part of the Sanjiangyuan region, Yushu benefits greatly from these projects.

This is not the first time that Tibetan Buddhism has been found to support conservation goals. His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, published a paper in Conservation Biology in 2011 discussing how Buddhism shares many values with the environmental movement. In the case of snow leopards (Panthera uncia), researchers demonstrated that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and sacred mountains offer valuable habitat protection to this iconic species in the area. When domestic sheep and yaks are killed by snow leopards, local herders often show great sympathy and understanding towards the predators. Retaliatory killing rarely occurs here, in sharp contrast to other areas in China with frequent human-wildlife conflicts.

Camera trap photo of an otter. Photo Credit: Shanshui Conservation Center.

Of course, from a conservationist’s perspective, traditional values have many facets, and not all are beneficial. In the same rivers where the otters live, people have been releasing fish as a practice of sparing lives that were to be slaughtered. Most of these non-native fish would die, but a few carp species appear to be doing well, raising concerns over invasive species. Conservationists working in this area must address these kinds of challenges in ways that the local people are willing to accept.

While the otters in Yushu benefit from both Tibetan traditions and conservation actions, they still face a number of threats, including levee construction, water pollution, and growing traffic in the city. To better understand the impact of human activities on the otter population, Shanshui Conservation Center will continue its efforts in monitoring and research. Eventually, Center staff hope to inform actions such as habitat restoration, anti-poaching, and native fish conservation, based on their findings.

Camera trap photo of an otter. Photo Credit: Shanshui Conservation Center.


• Dorje, O. T. (2011). Walking the path of environmental Buddhism through compassion and emptiness. Conservation Biology, 25(6), 1094-1097. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01765.x

• Gomez, L., Leupen, B. T., Theng, M., Fernandez, K., & Savage, M. (2016). Illegal Otter Trade: An analysis of seizures in selected Asian countries (1980-2015). TRAFFIC.

• Li, F., & Chan, B. P. L. (2017). Past and present: the status and distribution of otters (Carnivora: Lutrinae) in China. Oryx, 1-8.

• Li, J., Wang, D., Yin, H., Zhaxi, D., Jiagong, Z., Schaller, G. B., … & Xiao, L. (2014). Role of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in snow leopard conservation. Conservation Biology, 28(1), 87-94. doi:10.1111/cobi.12135

• Roos, A., Loy, A., de Silva, P., Hajkova, P. & Zemanová, B. 2015. Lutra lutra. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T12419A21935287. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T12419A21935287.en. Downloaded on 07 March 2018.

• Shao, Q., Liu, J., Huang, L., Fan, J., Xu, X., & Wang, J. (2013). Integrated assessment on the effectiveness of ecological conservation in Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. Geographical Research, 32(9). doi:10.11821/dlyj201309007

Yifan (Flora) He is a recent Master’s graduate from the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, soon to join Conservation International as a social science coordinator. In early 2018, she volunteered at the Shanshui Conservation Center, working on Eurasion otter monitoring, human-wildlife conflict resolution, and ecotourism development in the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai, China.

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