The ‘Tigers of the Rivers’
There is very little known about the ‘water dog’ which is also high on the poaching list for its fur and meat. Here is a quick glimpse into the challenges facing the species.
Written by Anisha Iyer
Goa is every Indian’s go-to destination for a beach vacation. People from all over the country and the world visit this small state all year long. It is also one of the smallest states in India through which the Western Ghats runs. The Ghats, a biodiversity hot spot in the country and home to an array of fauna is also home to a unique animal that is less known, the otter. Most visitors to Goa are probably unaware of the presence of this species in the surroundings.
Three of the 13 otter species that are found in India are namely Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra); Smooth-coated Otter (Lutra perspicillata) and Small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). The Western Ghats however are where you can find Smooth-coated otters and Small-clawed otters, both of which are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red list.
An internship opportunity in Goa is what opened to me the world of otters. During the internship, the interns are taught to monitor otter movement patterns, recognize signs of otter presence and foraging behavior. In the process, we learnt some of the challenges these animals face due to living in close proximity to human settlements in coastal areas.
My first otter sighting was least expected and during an evening in Goa with a friend. After running an errand and on our way back to the basecamp, an impromptu decision to stop by the side of a road to appreciate the mangroves provided the opportunity. We caught a glimpse of an otter trying to cross the street at the same time. A quick 5-second glimpse of this gorgeous animal staring right at us, before scurrying away into the water after noticing a motorbike heading towards him from the other direction, was definitely a fascinating encounter for us. This incident also highlights the risk otters face on a daily basis from road traffic.
Otters are social animals and can be territorial too; they form small groups of two to six individuals in the wild. The entire group tends to defecate in the same area and revisit these sites to establish territories; this is usually done on high ground in order to make sure it isn’t washed away. Unique behaviours otters display at certain times is the way they defecate, also known as the “poop dance”; where in they step from one hind leg to another skilfully. Grooming is another act in which they roll around on the ground to keep themselves clean.
Small-clawed otters prefer habitats with fresh water, streams, mangroves and rocky terrains of the Ghats within protected areas. They feed mostly on crabs, molluscs, insects etc. In the rivers, brackish waters and mangroves of Goa outside protected areas, smooth coated otters can be spotted occasionally. They tend to feed on fish, shrimps, frogs, crabs, etc. The locals and the fishermen also use the river and the mangroves to harvest local produce, which leads to an interaction between them. Otters have been blamed by fishermen for fishing net depredation, damaged fishing nets, and depleted fish in man-made fishing pools.
Other forms of conflict in Goa come from loss of wetland habits namely, sand mining, pollution and disturbance caused by boats. An issue specific to Goa, affecting Smooth-coated otters is the restoration of traditional bunds (an embankment used to control the flow of water) by constructing concrete walls over them. According to recent research otters use these bunds as crossings to access waterways and they also tend to be ideal for dens, thus making habitual behaviours for otters difficult.
Besides being affected by bad fishing practices like dynamite fishing that take a toll on them, otters are also killed for their fur, meat and other body parts, and also increasingly sold as pets. In fact, otter skin/fur makes a large portion of wildlife pelts seized. A Sanctuary India report noted that 50% of all seized otter skins are from India!
Although otters are known to adapt, drastic changes from different factors may lead to a gradual but sure decline in their already dwindling numbers, unless communication and partnership is established between all parties involved. Otter expert for India and scientist at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), S. A. Hussain states, “In the rivers, otters are what the tigers are in forests. So when they return, it means that there is enough to eat in the river and the ecosystem health is improving.”
Countries like Singapore focus on otter conservation by promoting strict laws and general public interest in the species. Despite the decline in population in the past due to habitat loss, measures such as cleaning up waterways and the shores led to an increase in their population gradually. Studies on otters are limited; organizations in India such as the WWF and Wild Otters are doing conservation research on the species, finding new data and educating the community about the benefits from otters.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 26th, 2019 at 12:27 PM
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