Development of Non-Invasive Techniques for Identifying Eurasian Otter Populations in Lebanon

Samara P. El-Haddad

Wildlife Conservation Junior Specialist at Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI)

Karma Bouazza

Ecological Restoration Senior Specialist at Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI)

Lebanon is considered a relatively small country, with a surface area of 10,452 km2. However, it holds a very high level of biodiversity and is part of the Mediterranean hotspot for biodiversity. Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) aims to expand, manage, and protect Lebanon’s forests and landscapes through a community-based approach. We work on building communities resilient to environmental threats, increasing environmental awareness and education, advocating for forest conservation, advancing research in the forestry field, and wildlife conservation. The Global Otter Conservation Strategy report developed by the IUCN Otter Specialist Group (2018) reports that although the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is globally listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, this species is Critically Endangered in Lebanon. Eurasian otters in Lebanon are known to be present in two locations in the country, Anjar/Kfarzabad region and Nahr el Kabir, but to this day, there are no applied research programs specifically on the conservation of Eurasian otters. LRI is seeking to broaden its conservation research on thoroughly studying the remaining otter populations in Lebanon, as they are great environmental indicators, reflecting the health of the riparian ecosystem.

The Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) aims to revive the population and dispersal of critically endangered Eurasian otters in riparian habitats in Lebanon, through development of long-term, effective, on-the-ground conservation strategies for the species. LRI will be using cost-effective and advanced techniques to study remaining otter populations in the country, that will aid in identifying and prioritizing restoration and conservation areas. LRI will also be developing a national decree for the conservation of the species. LRI will be using non-invasive techniques for this project due to the critically endangered status of the otter populations and such techniques would avoid exposure of animals to risks of disturbance or injuries. Firstly, the actual distribution of otters will be mapped using camera-trapping, Footprint Identification Technique (FIT), and non-invasive genetic analysis of spraints in Ghzayel River and Nahr el Kabir.

Habitat and anthropogenic surveys will be conducted as well to identify the effects on the available otter populations. The surveys will inquire about economic activities, land use, awareness of otter presence, and mitigation of human-wildlife conflict. These systematic surveys using new cost-effective detection techniques will assist in filling the data gaps on Eurasian otters in Lebanon. LRI will be confirming any subspecies status to identify and conserve key populations and be able to detect population density, diet, spatial organization, and population structure. Moreover, LRI will be developing a framework for prioritizing areas for conservation in one study area and improve connectivity of fragmented and degraded riparian forests. Based on the generated data, LRI will develop a robust conservation plan, that will be supported by drafting a law for conservation of otters in the country.

FIT is a proven tool for monitoring endangered species with 15 species algorithms in use and more in development. This technique was developed by WildTrack organization, as a translation of indigenous tracking expertise. From standard digital images of footprints, FIT uses a customized model - a robust cross-validated discriminant analysis with a clustering method – to (1) identify species, individuals, age-class and sex, (2) is non-invasive and works in conjunction with other non-invasive techniques, (3) cost-effective, (4) obtains high accuracy, and (5) is uniquely accessible to traditional trackers as it is derived from traditional ecological knowledge.  WildTrack’s PhD student Frederick Kistner, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has independently developed FIT for the Eurasian otter in Europe and is now working to expand the project for field conservation. LRI is currently partnering with WildTrack as they aim to fully develop FIT for the Eurasian otter and is currently looking for field projects that are interested in testing Frederick’s method. LRI will be using and training local communities to use the Epicollect app, freely available for download to smartphones, to facilitate collection and submission of footprint photos to WildTrack for analysis.

As mentioned, this method works in conjunction with other non-invasive techniques such as camera-trapping and DNA identification from spraint. Footprints have been used as marks in mark-recapture techniques to estimate populations from sampling. LRI will train community trackers to identify footprints at the start of this project, in their identification and documentation. The footprint monitoring will be ongoing throughout the project timeline to be able to collect sufficient data to generate more accurate results. LRI will send WildTrack researchers the data to be analyzed in their facilities, using the software they developed. If this method proves to be successful as a non-invasive tool to monitor otter populations, the technology will be transferred to LRI by WildTrack for use with other endangered species in Lebanon.

Figure 1. Section of the Ghzayel River depicting the Riparian habitat used by the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra). 

Figure 2. Sightings of Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra) caught on camera trap in Anjar (Berj Tumberian, 2013). 

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