Lutras are endangered all over the world, and only a few dozen are believed to remain in this country, but dwindling population hints at at troubled ecosystem.
By Eli Ashkenazi | May.14, 2012 | 12:30 AM | 1

For the first time in decades, no lutras, a dwindling species of otter, have been spotted in the Beit Shean and Harod valleys in the north, and concerns are mounting that the lutra may disappear from Israel.

The news emerged from a recent survey of the water-loving mammals conducted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority.

Lutras are endangered all over the world, and only a few dozen are believed to remain in this country. Excellent swimmers, they feed on fish, crabs, amphibians and other small animals. Ecologists consider them a “flagship species,” meaning their absence signals something wrong with the ecosystem in general.

“Many of the habitats containing water and fish that were home to lutras have disappeared. Now the alternative water sources are disappearing, mainly fish ponds,” said Dr. Amit Dolev, who took part in this year’s lutra survey and has been studying the animals for many years.

He added that in Europe, particularly Belgium, major efforts and resources are being invested in stream rehabilitation, which is part of restoring the ecosystem. It may save the lutras and will also, of course, benefit people, he says.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, lutras were plentiful in all of Israel’s coastal streams, as well as from the sources of the Jordan River in the north to the Dead Sea in the south.

The Beit Shean, Harod and Jezreel valleys were an essential ecological corridor linking the various lutra populations and their wetland habitats.

In the 1960s, however, their numbers began to decline due to illegal hunting, pollution, drying up of water sources and road kill.

Lutras are sometimes confused with nutrias, which they resemble somewhat. However, nutrias are an invasive species imported to Israel from South America in an attempt to establish a fur industry here, and they are much more common than lutras.

As road kill is a major threat to the few remaining lutras, ledges are to be built under bridges in the Hula Valley under some bridges so the animals can get out of strongly flowing water which brings them up to the road where they risk being run over. A breeding nucleus is also to be established for lutras in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.