Commercial hunting for the international trade in animal hides in the 20th century decimated many populations of aquatic wildlife in Amazonia. However, impacts varied significantly between different species and regions, depending upon hunting intensity, accessibility of habitat, and the inherent resilience of various species and their habitats. We investigated the differential responses of two Amazonian Mustelid species, the neotropical otter and giant otter, to commercial hunting pressure along the upper Rio Negro in Brazil, and examined historical factors that influenced spatial and temporal variation in commercial exploitation. We analyzed previously unanalyzed data from historical records of hide shipments to track changes in hide sales and prices for the two species in the late 20th century. We also gathered oral histories from older Baniwa people who had witnessed or participated in commercial otter hunting. These complimentary data sources reveal how intrinsic biological and social characteristics of the two otter species interacted with market forces and regional history. Whereas giant otter populations were driven to local or regional extinction during the late 20th century by commercial hunting, neotropical otters persisted. In recent decades, giant otter populations have returned to some parts of the upper Rio Negro, a development which local people welcome as part of a generalized recovery of the ecosystems in their territory as a result of the banning of animal pelt exports and indigenous land demarcation. This paper expands the scope of the field historical ecology and reflects on the role of local knowledge in biodiversity conservation.