One of the hardest-to-spot mammals in Chile can often be found underwater, foraging among the roots of native trees in Patagonia’s rivers, lakes, and fjords. But what really makes the huillín—also known as the southern river otter, or “river cat”—so tough to come across is not just its aquatic habitat but also the fact that only an estimated 500 huillín remain in Chile and Argentina, according to experts.
The largest animal in the Mustelidae family in Chile, the huillín (Lontra provocax)—with its thick fur, webbed feet, and long, rudderlike tail—is also the second-largest carnivore in the country, after the puma. With long whiskers, called “vibrisas,” that help it detect prey under logs and rocks in the riverbed, the huillín, which was once prevalent in the region, is in rare company as one of the few animals that can thrive in both freshwater and coastal-marine waters while also using coastal areas on land as burrows.
Today, this otter is classified as endangered by both the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Chile’s Environment Ministry. That’s why, in June 2021, a plan—known by its Spanish acronym RECOGE, for the recovery, conservation, and management of huillín—began taking shape, with the goals of improving conservation and Chilean government agency coordination to effectively conserve and manage this species.
As part of the RECOGE plan—being developed by the consulting firm Huella Natureza, with financial support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and government agency coordination by the Environment Ministry—organizers will facilitate nearly three dozen interactive workshops between June and December of this year. These sessions are intended to engage a broad swath of stakeholders, from government and scientists to nongovernmental organizations and companies in the forestry, tourism, and aquaculture sectors, to develop a strategy to help local residents learn the importance of—and their shared responsibility for—protecting this iconic species and helping it recover.
Healthy huillín habitat would also benefit communities by providing a range of ecosystem services, including clean sources of drinking water and seafood, climate regulation, and some protection from coastal flooding and erosion.
The plan includes 14 workshops for representatives from academia, NGOs, private sector firms, and public agencies along with a dozen meetings at the regional level, sessions with Chilean and Argentine groups, and workshops for Indigenous people.
Numerous factors have driven the huillín’s decline, including the destruction of shoreline vegetation caused by agriculture, pine and eucalyptus plantations, wetland drainage, urbanization, salmon farming, and diseases transmitted by invasive species such as the American mink.
Because huillín rely on so many different ecosystems—from river basins to coastal-marine areas—conserving and managing this species may seem like a daunting task. But preserving and restoring these ecosystems is worth the effort because it will result in a healthier environment, not just for the huillín but also for the local communities that share its habitat.
Maximiliano Sepúlveda works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Chilean Patagonia project.