It was a fine evening in the first week of November 2018, when I decided to venture into the Indian Institute of Science (IISC, Bangalore) for bird watching. I had received e-mail alerts regarding sightings of species like Indian Pitta and Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher in the campus. The best birding spot is in and around the Jubilee Garden area where there is small pond near the entrance. The pond is inconspicuous, hidden by the surrounding trees. I stopped there and observed some flycatchers, Pond Herons, drongos and a lone cormorant.

As I was about to walk to the other parts of the garden in pursuit of more birds, I saw something large crawling in the bush towards the pond. I positioned myself with my camera to get a good view of the approaching animal. And there, to my utter disbelief, emerged an otter, a Smooth-coated Otter to be precise! He seemed to be a well-built, healthy individual and stared at me with the same level of surprise. Instinctively, I clicked as many photographs as possible before he vanished.

The otter then avoided the path where I stood, approached the pond on the other side, and entered the water. After giving me a final, brief look, it went beneath the bushes in the water and disappeared. I was thrilled to see an otter in this small water body, and happy to see this rare species instead of the birds I was looking for.

The habitats that Smooth-coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) prefer are rocky banks along riversides and occasionally in reservoirs. In my previous encounters, I have seen otters in both of these habitats – one in River Cauvery and another at a small reservoir in Salem district, Tamil Nadu. Naturally, I wondered how this individual happened to live in this small pond surrounded by a wooded area, amidst the concrete jungle that is Bangalore.

Since this particular sighting is unusual, I looked up records for previous otter sightings in Bangalore. To my surprise, there was one camera trap record of an otter sighting in 2017, in the forests of the Roerich estate in the outskirts of Bangalore. It is interesting to note that one was sighted in the outskirts of the city and the other, right in the heart of the city.

There are three Otter species found in India. Otters are usually seen in groups called romps, and are very playful by nature. They feed primarily on fish and supplement their diet with insects, frogs, birds and rats.

The Smooth-coated Otter is listed as Vulnerable, with a decreasing population trend, in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Loss of wetland habitats, poaching and contamination of water bodies due to urbanization are known to be the biggest threats to this species. Cauvery and Tungabhadra riverbeds are the some of the best habitats for these animals in Karnataka. Whether these habitats are shrinking, leading to stray population of otters in water bodies in the busy city, needs to be studied.