Eco-agents in peril

Last Updated 15 April 2014, 03:20 IST

Smooth-coated otters are shy yet aggressive beings. They are an important link in the ecosystem but are being subjected to continous exploitation, writes S K Manjunath.

Daylight was yet to descend on the serene waters’ of the banks of river Cauvery, a place ideally located for numerous migrant birds. It was a long-standing wish of ours to document the tryst with the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale persipicillata) together with some of its elusive behaviour.

India is home to three of the thirteen species of otters found worldwide, they are common otter, smooth-coated otter and small-clawed otter. While the smooth-coated otter is distributed throughout the country, the common otter and the small-clawed otter are restricted to the Himalayas, to the north of the Ganges and to southern India.

The sympatric occurrence of otters has been reported from northeast India and the Western Ghats only. With their shy and elusive habits, otters are extremely versatile adapting to a variety of habitats.

Bellicose beings

Otters are fierce and active hunters, chasing the prey in the water or searching the beds of rivers or lakes. Fish forms a major part of their diet, but they also hunt small mammals. Since fishes are what otters focus on, they have to be at the right place at right time to catch them.

In the backdrop, the morning golden light was opening up, with the Sun slowly rising over the horizon while we settled in a hideout without any movement and disturbance to them. Slowly, a whole family of otters congregated one by one on a small rocky islet. It was quite an indulgence for us to see how they manage to be agile yet methodical at the same time.

Owing to their coy nature, they prefer to be far away from the visibility of humans and their settlements. So we made sure that we were camouflaged and not in a direct line of their sight.

In what can be called as the root of the otter’s social nature, the young ones were focusing more on fooling around than fishing and at times, going around in circles as they chased each other’s tails. The adult male caught a fish and bit into it before passing it on to the female, who then fed her young ones by turn.

We quickly tried to capture their antics in our cameras. This particular pack of otters were quite active, with young ones  constantly diving into the water and finally  settling on the back of their parents.

After capturing some decent family portraits and dining pictures of these elusive otters, we were reminded of the fact that nature doesn’t differentiate between the expert and the rank beginner when it comes to revealing its most interesting and intimate secrets.

As the sun rose high above in the sky, the otter family posed for one final picture for us, with the adult male chewing on the meal again and the curious mother and young ones gazing at us. The delightful family then bid us adieu and vanished into the waters’.

Otters form a part of the principal predators of the aquatic environments. They are suitable indicators of the health of a wetland ecosystem as they are sensitive to degradation of the food chain. They are at times, endorsed as ‘Wetland Ambassadors’ to promote the conservation of freshwater biomes.

Although we were happy seeing a healthy family of otters, their status globally is not that bright. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in their Red list of threatened animals, has designated the status of common otter as ‘near threatened’ and that of smooth-coated otter and small-clawed otter as ‘vulnerable’.

Otter troubles

While otters have been accorded legal protection under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, illegal trade in otter pelts is common in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and China. Otters are mercilessly killed for their fur, which is dense and durable.They are liked so much so that people consider it the ‘diamond’ of the fur business.

In Tibet, otter skins are used to adorn a traditional costume called ‘chuba’ and headgears are decorated with it. Even trophies are made out of them. Other body parts are believed to possess therapeutic properties and in some places in India, otter blood is used as a cure for epilepsy.

Nomadic hunting tribes such as Gilhara, Badiya and Jogis are known to regularly kill otters for their skin and flesh. Pollution from many sources, including agricultural run-off and heavy metal concentration results in reduction in prey biomass (fish stocks). Infrastructural developments have led to disappearance of otters from many streams and rivers which were once major otter habitats.

Moreover these otters are traditionally being domesticated in Bangladesh for fishing. It’s one of the few fishing techniques left in the world where domesticated animals are used. Here, the men will use specially trained otters to chase the fish into the nets.

The otters listen to the directions of the fishermen and this teamwork allows the men to have a good catch. Fortunately, economic and social pressures have largely eliminated this traditional fishing practice.

Efforts underway

Organisations like WWF, India strive to look into the future of otter conservation efforts, so as to provide a strong basis in helping facilitate future conservation management of this species. The documentation of past, present, and potential future distribution of otters is vital for understanding their population dynamics, and to plan species-oriented conservation programmes.

It is important to reinforce a sympathetic attitude towards the plight faced by the otters, stimulating more research and conservation effort in this direction. Policy advocacy should be promoted to ensure long term survival of otters in their natural habitats with support from the government for their conservation.

The main consideration at this time is to start the otter conservation ball rolling in the county before it is too late.

(Published 14 April 2014, 14:19 IST)

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