Otters are some of the cutest and most fun animals on Earth. It’s always a joy to see them in the wild. That was doubly so for the conservationists at Fundación Rewilding who recently spotted a wild giant river otter swimming in the Bermejo River in Impenetrable National Park, located in the Chaco province of northeast Argentina.
That’s because the otter species, officially known as Pteronura brasiliensis, was previously thought extinct in the area. It hadn’t been spotted anywhere in the country since the 1980s, and was last seen on that particular river more than 100 years ago.
Sebastián Di Martino, director of conservation at local group Tompkins Conservation, spotted the otter while kayaking.
“We grabbed the cell phone and started filming it, when he poked his body out of the water and showed the unmistakable white bib, we had no doubts, it was a giant river otter. We could not believe it, the record is incredible and how that specimen got here rises thousands of questions,” said Di Martino in an emailed statement.
The organization later posted the video on Twitter, so you can see the otter bobbing up and down in the water—as I’ve done no less than 30 times this morning.
“[Y]our legs go weak and your heart starts beating faster,” Di Martino told the Guardian of his experience of the sighting.
He went on to explain that the otter may have traveled back into Argentina from the Paraguayan Pantanal—the world’s largest wetland area, which stretches across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The other potential explanation is that there’s been an unseen population of wild giant river otters in Argentina all along, but that would be remarkable since the creatures tend to congregate in large groups.
Either way, the sighting is particularly exciting because it indicates that the Bermejo can sustain otter populations if it’s given the protection it needs. That’s important because giant river otters play such essential roles in Argentinian wetlands and rivers. The species is a predator at the top of the aquatic food chain, so they regulate fish populations and keep ecosystems balanced. In fact, the creatures are so crucial that Tompkins Conservation has been working for years to reintroduce them into national parks in Argentina. In summer 2019, the group began to integrate a giant river otter that grew up in the Budapest Zoo in Hungary into the Iberá wetlands.
Without conservation measures, though, otters likely wouldn’t stand a chance at making it. Though Impenetrable National Park where the otter was seen is protected from outside threats, Chaco, Argentina is one of the most deforested places on the planet and is full of other dangers like illegal hunting, agriculture, and development. As Kristine Tompkins, a founder of Tompkins Conservation, said on Twitter, the sighting was “great news that adds urgency to the need to expand the park to protect this species!”
Update 5/25/2020, 3:15 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment Di Martino and photos of the otter.