In May 2017, I got a call from a friend in Bangalore who worked in The Hindu: “Do you know that a camera trap placed by Vaderahalli Lake captured the image of an otter?” The lake is on the outskirts of Bangalore, far removed from the Cauvery or its tributaries, and I was most surprised, for Smooth-coated Otters – as this otter turned out to be – inhabit rivers and large streams. Yet, doing a quick study, I learnt of a number of lakes in India, and indeed of one in Karnataka, where otters have been spotted. Over the last five years of my becoming an otter trotter, I have been surprised and delighted more than once by this wonderful, playful, and astonishingly agile animal.
India has three species of otters: Eurasian Otter, Asian Small-clawed Otter and Smooth-coated Otter. The Eurasian has a known range along the Western Himalayas; yet, about a year ago, a young lad from Sikkim called Pemba, who is training to be a film-maker at the Green Hub in Tezpur, got a lovely little clip of two Eurasian Otters in a high-altitude stream in Sikkim, in effect extending its home range. The Asian Small-clawed, the smallest otter in the world (there are thirteen species worldwide), typically inhabits small streams in higher regions such as the headwaters of Western Ghats’ rivers and the North East. The Smooth-coated Otter, which is the subject of this article, prefers downstream river stretches – lowlands and floodplains – with higher fish diversity, which is its main diet.
Amongst the three species, the Smooth-coated Otter is the most visible to us, as it is active in the late morning and evening hours. A pack of them (called a ‘romp’ of otters) is a delight to watch in the river, as they dive repeatedly, their perfectly arched backs creating a mini dolphin-like effect. After a few moments, they emerge farther down the river, often with a fish in their mouth, which they then proceed to chomp up with rapid bites, much like a little child eating up a favoured biscuit. And being gregarious, fun-loving animals, they are constantly communicating with each other via high-pitched chirps and squeaks, the pitch tending to rise when they sense a human in their midst. On sand banks, romps of Smooth-coated Otters – adults and young ones – can play for minutes on end, sliding down or trotting up the banks, rolling over, chasing one another and then entering the water with a quick splash, only to re-emerge in a moment. They use in-stream rocks and sand banks as spraint (poo) sites and might den in high sand banks or along well-forested banks of rivers, in the safety of the exposed root-system of large trees.
The other interesting fact about otters is that a single romp can have a large home range (what we now term an ‘otter corridor’). In studies done by radio-collaring Smooth-coated Otters in the Chambal by Dr. SA Hussain of Wildlife Institute of India, it was found that while most of the movements of a romp (consisting of a male, female, and up to four young ones) were restricted to 250 to 1500 metres, they would cover 7 to 12 kms of a river stretch as their territory, and an even longer stretch of shoreline if living along the coast. Indeed, adult males have been known to cover as much as 17 kms!
Studying otters in general is difficult and requires perseverance. They are small and often shy of humans, and are fast, smooth swimmers who live their days out in water, spending very little time in open areas on land. They cover a long stretch of the river and often den in parts of the river that are entirely unapproachable. Yet, the reward for that perseverance is worth the effort, for watching them is at once both fulfilling and thrilling.
The Smooth-coated Otter has been classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is protected under Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Across its home range – South Asia and South-east Asia – its numbers are declining due to issues that are all too familiar: poaching for its pelt, conflict with fishermen, destructive fish harvesting practices such as the usage of dynamite, chemical poisons (pesticides, copper sulphate and bleaching powder being examples) and electric rods, and toxic levels of pesticides in stream water.
Smooth-coated Otters in Karnataka are found in the state’s primary river systems; the Tungabhadra Otter Sanctuary is India’s first conserved area for this species. The Cauvery river ecosystem has otters in both its protected stretches and in human-dominated stretches, often in spots that have recorded high pollution from human activity.
We have tried to make an effort in educating fishermen and others along the river on the conservation status of the Smooth-coated Otter and the need for protection, for it is now known from our discussions with people in the villages along the Cauvery that Smooth-coated Otters were hunted by tribes that came to the river for that purpose; some of those tribes spoke Hindi and came from the North, while one spoke Kannada. They would offer a token sum to fishermen – who have an excellent knowledge of otter dens and behaviour – in return for access to the dens. They would then set up traps, clubbing the animal to death when it was caught in it, and skinned the carcass with dexterity and precision. Indeed, it was this information in 2012 that drove us to begin an otter conservation programme along the Cauvery and Kabini river ecosystems.
Today, poaching isn’t as much of an issue as the otter-fisher conflict and the usage of dynamite in harvesting fish. Otters damage nets when they take fish from them, and fishers, understandably, are incensed. “Take your otters away,” they admonish us, and on odd occasions when Smooth-coated Otter pups have been caught in nets, fishermen have killed them. Equally, they set fire to reed banks that are known otter dens. While we may see such behaviour as callous and unlawful, it is only a sustained engagement that can change their animosity to a live-and-let-live tolerance. Dynamite is an equally nasty threat, for otter deaths are an unintended consequence, and our campaign against this practice is a long term one.
A question that I am asked possibly far too often is: “But why do we need to protect otters? What benefits will result?” Does the answer have to be a logical one? I always wonder. Can’t it just be that it’s a beautiful, lively mammal with unique adaptation to its freshwater ecosystem? Equally, I wonder if we have a right to ask the question in the first place. Yet, there is a logical answer too.
Nicole Duplaix, the Chair at the Otter Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), puts it very succintly: “One of the surest ways to know if an ecosystem is healthy is to see if there are apex predators. It takes a robust food web to be able to support carnivores at the top. So when you see a coral reef packed with sharks, you know it’s doing well. When you see a forest complete with wolves and grizzlies, you know it’s a healthy forest. And when you see a river system that is home to river otters, you know it is a healthy waterway. That’s why we call otters ‘indicator species’ – they have a story to tell us. While we greatly appreciate river otters for their playfulness and for making our day a little brighter with their antics, we need to also appreciate them for the story they tell us just by their presence. If they are around and healthy, then it means good things for the entire habitat. And if they disappear, then they just gave us a big clue to start looking into what’s going on in a river or lake system. We need to value river otters for simply being there, and letting us know when all is well.”
In other words, our lives are intertwined with otters. Their survival and ours is linked inextricably.