Conserving Otters as if People Mattered

by Gopakumar Menon
Smooth Coated Otters
Revi Unni
The Smooth Coated is diurnal and the target of India’s poaching network for its pelt.

The first time I saw an otter in the wild – a Smooth Coated Otter in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary – I knew this was the animal I wanted to see much more of. If you have seen an otter – any one of the thirteen species found across the World – you will agree that there is something charming, childlike and engaging about this mammal. Yet what really got me moving along an ottery path about a couple of years later was a story in the Tehelka magazine in 2010: wildlife poachers were targeting not just tigers and leopards, but otters, jackals and monitor lizards. The opening paragraph of the article read: “Two hundred and fifty tigers, 2,000 leopards, 5,000 otters, 20,000 wild cats, 20,000 wild foxes (jackals, most likely) — and still counting. That’s the number of wild animals that law enforcers have been able to count as falling prey to the deadly trade plied by Sansar Chand, 55, dubbed the Veerappan of the North, in the four decades since he took to a life of crime. He himself says they are “uncountable” and betrays no remorse about this mayhem.”

Along with a couple of friends who felt as passionately about conserving otters as I did, we set out to find out what was happening to the otters in the Cauvery. The headwaters of the river in Coorg, and those of its tributary, the Kabini (which originates in the Brahmagiris in Kerala) harbour populations of Asian Small-Clawed Otters, the smallest otter in the World, that is now declining across its original vast range and is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This otter is nocturnal and crepuscular (active principally around dawn and dusk) – and generally only seen by those who stay by streams or fish in them at those times (with exceptions, of course). What we have found over the years is that this otter isn’t hunted, other than occasional opportunistic poaching, but seems to be declining in numbers, judging from accounts of seasoned fishers, the possible culprits being two:

  1. Pesticides used in fields adjacent to streams; and
  2. Poisons (including pesticides, bleaching powder and copper sulphate) used to kill fish. More on dealing with this later in the article.

At a point in the Cauvery, where the gradient flattens out and the Mysore plains begin, my colleagues saw (and camera-trapped) both species of otters found in the river: the Asian Small Clawed Otter and the Smooth Coated Otter in a single stretch, suggesting a co-habitation. Every river which has these two species seems to have this range of overlap, downstream of which generally is Smooth Coated Otter habitat, and this is the case with the Cauvery too.

The Smooth Coated, being active in the day – playing, swimming, fishing, rolling over in the sand banks in the middle of the river – are often easily spotted, and this diurnal activity has been the undoing of the species, even though it is protected under the WPA (Schedule II). It is this species that was the target of India’s poaching network that, in the two decades leading to about 2010-12, decimated them, wiping them out from many of India’s principal rivers. The reason: its pelt, which was smuggled out of the country through Tibet and found its final use in the production of hand bags and upmarket clothing. Otter dens and resting sites aren’t difficult to locate in otter corridors : fishers, who are the primary local repository of knowledge on them, don’t particularly like otters, their animosity to the species arising from the damage that otters inflict on fishing nets and fish catch. As we studied otter populations along the Cauvery outside the protected areas, we heard stories – most times from fishers, at other times from farmers and the general know-alls who hang around – of groups of poachers speaking Hindi who would camp outside a village or along a stretch of river and ask for information on otters, which fishers willingly provided. The scale, the impunity and the technique used were all shocking: otters were trapped with jaw-traps or wire-traps and then clubbed on the head in a grisly ritual of death-by-economics.

Often, even today, when we ask if there are otters in a particular river stretch, we often get a question in return: “Do you want to catch them?”, which suggests that the poachers had a network that was well-distributed, and that we need to actively work with local fishers to change mindsets and behaviour. Thankfully though, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the poaching activity along the Cauvery ceased a few years ago.

Today, though, dynamite poaching of fish (done, not by fishers, but by those who have access to dynamite) and conflict with fishers, take their toll on the Smooth Coated otters of the Cauvery. The former is widespread and done in the December to June period, with utter disdain for the law, the dynamite being supplied from nearby quarries. Our primary work therefore has been campaigning locally against this practice, using street theatre, film and local enforcement and, happily, in the pilot stretch – one that we call the H Otter Corridor – dynamite fishing has stopped in the last three years (and will hopefully stay that way).

There are probably two conservation strategies that are best employed for long term benefit. The first is for otter conservationists to work with stakeholders along the river, again largely fishers, to bring about a certain level of pride in the species occupying their ‘backyard’ (not just tolerance, which wears thin on frequent occasions). This pride is justifiable today, considering, ironically, just how perilously low Smooth Coated Otter populations are. A campaign based on pride necessarily must be persisent, creative and local. There is no particular ‘advantage’ – defined in an economic or other generally accepted sense – in having otters in the backyard for local folk, yet pride is a powerful conservation motivator, as the evidence from such interventions elsewhere suggests, with a notable probability of long term success.

The second strategy to conserve otters involves the creation of otter conservation reserves, the first of which exists along the Tunga, near Hampi. As in the protection of any terrestrial carnivore, this entails the protection of the ecosystem and the primary prey species – in this case, fish. What this means, in turn, is stringent monitoring to prevent dynamite or poison fishing and sand mining, all of which are known to decimate fish (and otter) populations. As is evident, if such protection is done, the river will benefit as much as all the wildlife it harbours. Equally importantly, an otter conservation reserve should also conserve the riparian buffer. These neglected patches of forest are priceless for the services they offer – limiting soil erosion and run-off in the wet season, checking on the leaching of chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer into the water, increasing fish spawning due to shade and habitat, providing suitable denning sites for otters and roosting sites for important riparian avian species such as the Brown Fish Owl; the list is endless. Among the species that enrich the buffer, the pride of place in the Cauvery belongs to Terminalia arjuna and we have noticed a pronounced preference of otters to den in the exposed root system of old Arjuna trees.

Equally, the Small Clawed needs community engagement too, but with an entirely different leaning. We have worked in two Small-Clawed headwater habitats: South Coorg and Wayanad, both landscapes on opposing sides of the Brahmigiri range. In South Coorg, the land is largely farmed with coffee and the crop protection practices (pesticide usage) are relatively mild, yet the usage of poisons to kill or stun fish – copper sulphate, being a prime example – is a big threat. Engagement with planters, therefore, is vital, which is our long term focus.

Wayanad hosts the head waters of the Kabini. Here – an agricultural belt that is intensely farmed with paddy, ginger, nendra banana, tea and coffee, all consuming high quantities of pesticide, due to aggressive crop protection practices by local farmers – the Asian Small Clawed Otter lives a tenuous existence, with signs of activity increasing in the protected stretches that have lesser chemical residues. Yet, there has been no long term study done on the issue in India and little data exists to make the point conclusively. However, evidence from other countries and other otter species make a powerful case.

In the Kabini head waters, fish diversity is stunning as well: Densin Rons, a fish-researcher at the Veterinary College in Wayanad, documented 94 species in the streams above the intensely farmed areas and only a fraction of that number lower down in the Kabini. The three clear areas of focus here are to restore riparian buffers in a number of damaged stretches, propagate – in the local community – the value of these buffers to humans as pollution sinks and, finally and perhaps hardest of all, encourage a switch to organic agriculture.

All of this needs long-haul, persistent effort with the possibility of failure at every inflection point, yet the spin-offs of success are likely to be extraordinary and hopefully, engender a viral effect in other riparian ecosystems. In every sense, protecting otters – whether by community engagement or by conservation reserves – means protecting people. Our futures are inter-linked in more ways than one.

About the author

Gopakumar Menon

Gopakumar and his colleagues run the Nityata River Otter Conservancy (NROC).


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