Numerous sightings of the Japanese otter have been reported in Ehime Prefecture since last summer, when the Environment Ministry designated the animal an extinct species.
"One was swimming near the mouth of a river," one report said.
Another person reported, "I saw one scampering along a drainage ditch in a rice field."
Some researchers have scoffed at the reports, saying the witnesses are either seeing other creatures or are just overly hopeful that the otter is still alive.
But the number of reported sightings--15 since last summer--prompted local politicians in September to urge the Ehime prefectural assembly to start an investigation. The prefecture budgeted 200,000 yen ($2,130) and began a field survey in January.
Previously, the prefecture received one reported otter sighting a year.
The last official recorded sighting of the Japanese otter was in 1979 along the Shinjogawa river in Susaki, Kochi Prefecture.
The Japanese otter had round eyes, webbed paws, brownish tea-colored fur, a body length of about 70 centimeters and a thick tail about 45 centimeters long. It inhabited the ocean, rivers and marshes, where it fed on fish, crawfish and crabs.
The prefecture is distributing to hunting clubs and fisheries cooperatives 10,000 fliers with a description of the otter and life-size paw prints. The flier also appears on the prefectural government’s website, where it is seeking information on the animal.
The Japanese otter once inhabited a wide swath of Japan, from Hokkaido to Honshu and down to Shikoku. But it gradually disappeared due to excessive hunting by fur trappers, water pollution and other problems.
Both the Environment Ministry and the Kochi prefectural government combed the prefecture from the 1980s to the 2000s but found no traces of the otter.
One condition for designating a species as extinct is "the inability to confirm its existence after conducting multiple reliable surveys."
"We made the designation according to the criteria and based on the opinion of experts," an Environment Ministry official said.
But Ehime Prefecture's natural conservation division disagrees with the assessment.
"There haven't been enough surveys in our prefecture. We cannot determine that it is extinct," an official said.
Yasunori Miyauchi, 62, the former chief technician at Tobe Zoological Park of Ehime Prefecture, said it is possible that the Japanese otter survived without being seen.
"Wild animals can live in places beyond our knowledge. That was the case when we rediscovered the coelacanth and the "kunimasu" (a Japanese salmon)," Miyauchi said.
People cannot approach the areas below the cliffs of Ehime Prefecture's southern ria coastline, which is home to a multitude of inlets where otters would love to live, he added.
However, professor Motokazu Ando, 62, of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, who was involved in drafting the documents to designate the Japanese otter as extinct, dismisses such suggestions.
"Wanting it to be alive is not the same thing as scientific fact,” he said. “It is inconceivable that active otters with a length of 70 centimeters and a weight of 5 or more kilograms could live in seclusion and go unseen for more than 30 years."
The otter was recently reportedly seen near the mouth of a river in the city of Uwajima. Many empty cans and plastic bottles were floating on the surface, and a cat or gray heron would sometimes appear along the water.
But there were no signs of Japanese otters, known to prefer clean rivers.
Taisuke Miyamoto, 50, director of the Nature Kikaku Wildlife Research Office, said he thinks most of the otter sightings were actually palm civets or weasels.
Ehime Prefecture is commissioning the research firm with on-site surveys to investigate the locations of the sightings, but reliable information has been scarce.
"After news of their extinction broke, people who had forgotten about the otter were reminded of it, and the news paradoxically led to an increase in the number of reported sightings,” Miyamoto said. “I think some people love the otter, which is the official prefectural animal, while others may be dreaming about or romanticizing the creature."
In future surveys of areas considered favorable to the otters, including past habitats, Nature Kikaku's staff will set up video cameras that activate in response to body heat emitted by animals.
"Honestly, I think it would be really hard for it to have survived,” Miyamoto said. “Even so, the possibility isn't zero."
(This article was written by Daisuke Yajima and Teru Okumura.)
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