Tourists have been flocking to the small Japanese town of Hamanaka on the eastern side of Hokkaido island to spot a rarity: sea otters in the wild.
The local hotel Kawamura Ryokan has seen a growth in tourism in recent months, especially from visitors with upscale camera equipment, according to The Japan Times. The endangered creatures can be seen year-round at Cape Kiritappu, even though they’re difficult to spot in the country’s aquariums.
The sea otters in Japan’s Northern Territories may have expanded their habitat, Yoshihiro Kataoka, who released a photo book of cape sea otters, tells the newspaper, which says there were two females and a male in the area in 2017. With an additional male, four babies were born last year, with only one surviving, and another sea otter was born this spring.
Across Japan, only six sea otters are currently living in four aquariums — Adventure World in Wakayama Prefecture, Marine World Uminonakamichi in Fukuoka Prefecture, Toba Aquarium in Mie Prefecture, and Suma Aqualife Park Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture — a harsh drop-off from the 122 in 28 facilities back in 1994, according to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The Japan Times reports.
Japan’s oldest sea otter in captivity — named Rasuka — died at the age of 25 last month at Notojima Aquarium in Ishikawa Prefecture, surpassing the average life span of 15 to 20 years, according to Kyodo News. She had been brought over from Alaska in 1998.
In addition to the aging population, the dwindling number of sea otters is also attributed to trade restrictions, The Japan Times reports.
Though the sea otters at Cape Kiritappu seem to be thriving in the natural habitat, their future isn’t exactly guaranteed, since sea otters can be a threat to the fishing industry because the marine mammals depend on a seafood diet.
But for now, the town of Hamanaka is grateful that the playful creatures are drawing in tourists. “We would like to explore their utilization as a tourist resource while considering their coexistence with fishermen,” a town official told The Japan Times.
Otters of all kinds have been a fascination in Japan — despite animal welfare concerns — with one river otter even becoming a social media star.
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