The news was at once upsetting and exciting. Belle and Phillip, the orphaned giant otters growing up at Karanambu, had swum off with a wild otter the day before (on April 21) and had not returned. Staff had gone out in boats searching for them, alternately calling out their names, “Belle, Belle, Belle….Phillip, Phillip, Phillip,” and yelling, “Fish, fish, feeeeesh,” but with no response. They’d given up the search a few hours after dark. The otters would have found a place to sleep for the night by then, or they would be dead.
This has happened before with other orphans. Sometimes they reappear and, having learned that there is much more river out there, establish a new routine, spending a few days at Karanambu and then a few days on a walk-about/swim-about. In other cases, they go off with a wild otter and are seen again, or not. But the worst case scenario also happens. Diane has also found her beloved beasts seriously injured or dead not far from Karanambu. The process is heartbreaking for her regardless of the outcome. She says the worst part is not knowing. Then again, giving the orphans a chance to interact naturally with wild otters is an essential step in their rehabilitation.
Several times during the prior week, Phillip and Belle had been down at the Karanambu landing as usual, under the watch of their otter capatash, Dorman, when they were suddenly seen swimming with a third otter. It had been a positive encounter with no sign of aggression. This alone was a good sign. In past years, positive encounters with wild otters at the Karanambu landing have almost always led to successful rehabilitation. Negative ones have led to fatal aggression–often witnessed by Diane and others–or severe injury.
Several years ago, Diane and I reviewed the outcome of her program and published it in a scientific journal a few years ago. We found that most of the orphaned otters in her care over the years had made it to the age when they were physically healthy and fit enough to return to the wild. About half of these made it back. This figure was based on positive sightings of known orphans. The percentage that survive may be higher, though; it’s difficult to be certain you are not seeing an individual otter around Karanambu given the tremendous amount of habitat available to them.
When the orphans leave and how it happens depends in part on their age, sex, and how many there are at the time. Though we don’t have enough cases to make a firm (statistical) conclusion, it does seem that a single older female otter has a good chance of survival: these otters often go off with single males and presumably become breeding pairs. Young single males seem to be at high risk of an early death, either by other otters or caiman. Bonded young otters, like Philip and Bel, also appear to have a better chance of making it, particularly if they are adopted by wild otters with young, or about to have young. The ideal situation has occurred just a few times: the orphan(s) returns to Karanambu for a free fish meal, and brings with it (them) their wild family. It’s an amazing opportunity for an up close encounter.
Since I am generally an optimist, my reaction to the news of Belle and Phillip’s departure was a positive one. I think they have a great chance of surviving. Diane was worried, of course. They weren’t the best fishers, she reminded me. She was in Georgetown at the time and anxious to get back to Karanambu. I talked with her by SKYPE and tried to say positive things. I even congratulated her - they were on their way to being wild giant otters.
Two days later, there was more news (April 23.) Diane had returned to Karanambu and had spent several hours down by the landing with fish, in case the orphans returned. Then the excitement began. Phillip was seen in Honey Pond Three with at several other otters. The boys who spotted him had gone out fishing; one was Dorman. He later described the encounter as friendly.
Dorman called. Phillip responded. The other boy raced to find Diane. In retrospect, I think even she would admit she over reacted a bit. Frantic that Phillip was barely alive, she called for the LandRover, but it was somewhere near Yupukari along with most of the adult staff of Karanambu. Instead she rounded up as many boys as she could to carry a transport crate along the trail to the Honey Pond, knowing she would have no hope of getting him into it unless he was near death. Within the hour, she had met Dorman and Phillip on the trail back to Karanambu. The otter wanted nothing to do with being carried anywhere. He was thirsty for water, however, and Diane was able to coax him all the way back to the pens. Once there, he ate readily. I talked to Diane at this point by SKYPE. She said he seemed quite back to normal, though she guessed he was missing Belle. He had no wounds; no sign of trauma Again, this was good news. Her plan was to take him to the landing as usual the next day. Maybe Belle would return, or he would go looking for her and the two would come back to Karanambu–or not. (These two orphans came from different places on the river so they are not related and we have wondered if they might become a breeding pair. Then again, males and females raised as siblings are generally believed to be less likely to breed with each other.)
Two more days passed and Phillip left again.
The next day (April 26), Phillip was seen briefly at Karanambu, this time right across the river from the landing in the company of two other otters – both judged to be adults, although one could have been Belle. Grabbing fish and fuel, Diane and Salvador jumped in a boat, and moved slowly down river calling for the otters. The boys thought one of the others was Belle, but they weren’t sure. The third was the same wild otter who’d first come to the landing. It is presumably a young male. No one has seen them since.
Over the past 18 months, a lot of people pulled out all the stops to help this pair of orphans, especially Diane, Andrea, Salvador, Evi, Stefy, Talia, Kirsty, and the otter capatashes. If only we knew for certain that Belle was with Phillip, and that they were part of a known group of otters. It is incredibly sad to think we will never see them again. Unless the two are spotted again, Diane will fear the worst. Even so, I have to believe they made it. Diane gave them the chance to return to the wild, and they took it. The rest is up to them.