Feature Image by Dr. Samad Kottur.
The two types of otters dwelling in India around the region of River Tungabhadra: the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), and the small-clawed otter are endangered species, and various measures have been brought in to protect them.
By Praveena P.
Bangalore, April 2019.
If a person manages to spot an otter right at his/her first attempt, he would be unbelievably lucky. Otters are extremely shy mammals and light on their feet. Adding to that, they are nocturnal beings. They come out to hunt and are active mainly at night.
Reddappa, a resident of Deshanur in Siruguppa, which is along the banks of one of the tributaries of River Tungabhadra, said that he used to see around 15-20 otters almost on a daily basis a few years ago in the area he lived in.“Otters are very playful creatures. I used to see them during the evenings almost every day. They would try to catch fish, and then run back to the land. They would swim and frolic in the water,” he said.
“We cannot spot them in broad daylight. It has to be either at dawn or at dusk. We should also maintain silence. The otters will run into hiding if they sense any human presence too close or hear loud noises,” he added.
Now, he sees around four to five only, but not as often as he used to earlier.
Causes behind the decline in the number of otters:
The part of the river in Deshanur is almost completely dried up and many villagers claim that the lack of rainfall during the past two years is not helping the otters.
Reddappa claims that the otters might have either died due to lack of water and starvation or moved away in search of places which had lots of water. He stated that it’s easier to spot otters during rainfall/monsoon.
The optimum annual rainfall a region needs for flora and fauna to flourish in an area is around 100 cm. – 150 cm. According to the Bellary district’s rainfall report on Siruguppa taluk, the annual rainfall over the past few years has deteriorated rapidly. The table shows that Siruguppa has received around 129.2 cm. of rainfall in 2010, but it has decreased to 53 cm. in 2015, and 46 cm. in the year 2016. This might’ve been one of the reasons behind either the death or the migration of otters.
The data on annual rainfall received is as follows:
Dr. Samad Kottur, a wildlife photographer and journalist who has studied these otters near River Tungabhadra in-depth, gave his inputs about the way otters are monitored. “Otters cannot be counted individually since it’s very hard to keep track of their numbers. They move to different areas, and they are active at night. We can only count the number of sites they are spotted at. These sites are known as ‘positive sites’.”
According to research done by the Karnataka Neeravari Nigam Limited, there were around 142 sites to spot smooth-coated otters. Out of these 142 sites, 87 sites were on rocky terrains. The report also states that otters prefer rocky banks over mud and sandbanks.
This statement from the report is slightly contradictory to what Reddappa says since the region he lives around is mostly full of rocks than mud and sand, but the number of otters spotted has indeed decreased there, based on what the residents claim.
What are the myths about otters?
There is another interesting rumour about these otters going around. Basavanappa said the following statement. “You know about snakes and mongooses right? They’re mortal enemies. Compare these otters and crocodiles in the same way. We know that crocodiles sleep with their mouths open. Well, while these crocodiles are asleep, these otters will go into their mouths, eat up their tongues and stomachs, and come out through the mouth, or whatever’s left of it. The crocodile would have struggled and died, obviously. Sometimes, they come out through their anuses.”
This slightly ludicrous claim made us aware of the kind of fear some folks had in mind when it came to these otters. Pretty soon, the statement was proved false by Dr. Paapandi, who said, “Have you seen the size of a crocodile’s mouth? Do you really think an otter can get inside a crocodile without being trapped? Crocodiles can put up a good fight too.”
“We have heard incidents where it’s the crocodile that usually attacks the otter because of hunger,” he added.
- What are the man-made reasons?
While the threat for an otter’s life from crocodiles and River Tungabhadra drying up due to lack of rainfall is natural, other man-made factors like poaching, dynamic fishing, illegal sand quarrying activities along the banks of the river, and pollution of the river because of nearby industries have resulted in the endangerment of otters along the river.
- What is dynamite fishing?
The point most residents stressed upon was that, the otters don’t really bother them since they spot them only from a distance. In the case of fishermen, it is a completely different story. Fishermen kill otters because these otters damage their fishing nets while trying to snatch fish from the nets. Fishermen also harm these otters through the process of dynamite fishing.
According to FORCECHANGE.COM, this refers to the usage of explosives to kill and capture fish. These explosives are used to create a powerful wave that would stun or kill the fish in the blast radius. This ends up killing not only fish but also other forms of aquatic life, in this case, the otters too.
A fisherman named Basavanappa, aged 24 stated that dynamite fishing is not prevalent in the area of Siruguppa. He said, “We don’t use explosives much in this area these days, because we can’t afford them in the first place. We don’t catch enough fish to earn a profit. This area of the river is so dried, as you can see.”
A.N. Yellappa Reddy, an environmentalist said, “If fish are killed through dynamite fishing in one section of a river, the otters won’t have anything to feed on. They might’ve been dwelling at the upstream portion of the river, but they’ll be forced to move downstream in search of food because of this method of fishing.”
- Are otters hunted?
Reddappa said in a low voice, “The lower-caste people in this area hunt these otters and eat them. I don’t know how they manage to eat that.” A few other villagers claimed that not only “low-caste” people eat it, but that there was some demand for otters’ meat here amongst many people.
One man the entire village directed us to when it came to these otters was Dr. Paapandi. He was a physician who had a local clinic in Siruguppa. He was highly knowledgeable about otters (for a doctor) while most others in the village didn’t know what we were talking about unless we used the terms ‘neernaayi’ or ‘choorbek’, which were the terms for otters in Kannada.
Dr. Paapandi, while examining his patients one by one in the small, cramped clinic, immediately asked his patients to be seated and wait for a few minutes when he heard the word ‘otters’. He showed a lot of interest in the topic and started explaining their habitat.
“Otters feed on crabs, frogs, and fish. You cannot spot an otter unless you know where exactly to search for them. They are nocturnal creatures and extremely cautious. You have to be very quiet and tread lightly so as to not scare them while you go looking for them,” he said.
“There used to be a local tribe around Deshanur. I don’t think they are here anymore. They set traps to capture these otters and cook its meat for consumption.” He went on to speak about the poaching of these otters in recent days. “One otter’s skin can be sold for up to Rs. 8,000. They use its skin to make belts and leather bags,” he stated.
“The meat of the otter is so juicy and tender,” he added.
The villagers claimed that Dr. Paapandi hunted otters.
What has been done to protect these otters?
Otters have been termed “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are protected under Schedule Two of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
The Forest Officer of Siruguppa, Mr. Pampapathi claimed that the otters’ count has increased over the past two years due to the various measures taken by the government, contrary to what the residents claimed. He explained the problems faced by otters and the solutions they had for it.
Illegal sand-quarrying along the banks of River Tungabhadra has resulted in the migration of otters in search of better places to make resting holes, which are also known as ‘couches’. Otters make a hole along the banks of a river which forms a tunnel that lets out into the water underneath. This has been hindered because of sand-quarrying.
“The government had given approval only for two sites along River Tungabhadra for sand-quarrying, but sand-quarrying happened in more than 13 spots. So, we had to take action. We issued warnings, but it didn’t work. We banned quarrying in the area after that. Now, there have been no cases of quarrying registered by the Forest Department,” he said.
He dismissed the comments of the villagers about the otters disappearing due to lack of water. “The issue villagers talk about is nothing. The otters move away in search of regions with more water during the summer. They share their territory with other otters near paddy fields or other places with more foliage.”
With the issue of poaching of otters, Pampapathi mentioned that two Anti-Poaching Camps (APCs) had been set up in the villages of Bomlapura and Raravi. “Each camp has 4 officers from the Forest Department who patrol their allotted regions to ensure that there is no poaching of otters,” he added.
The stretch of river starting from Mudlapura village in Koppal taluk to the bridge over the river in Kampli, in Hosapete taluk, has been declared as the ‘Otter Conservation Reserve’. The reserve goes on for about 34 km.
“The Tungabhadra Otters Reserve has been divided into three zones for better protection: the Bellary zone, the Raichur zone, and the Koppal zone. All three districts are responsible for the part of the otters’ reserve allotted to them.”
Another initiative could include the works of Dr. Gopakumar Menon. He is the Executive Director of Nityata River Otter Sanctuary, Bangalore and has been striving hard for the protection of the three existing species of otters in India, especially in the region around River Tungabhadra. The Nityata River Otter Sanctuary is one of his efforts to conserve otters along River Tungabhadra and River Cauvery. According to JLR explore, he also manages the Indian Otter Network, which is a closed Facebook group consisting of members who work for otter conservation or live nearby otter habitat.
Dr. Menon, who has been studying otters due to his initial curiosity about these intriguing mammals, began to strive for their protection once he found out that these animals have been endangered due to the reckless activities of human beings in that area.
What does it mean to have an otters’ reserve?
Dr. Samad Kottur explained the significance of having an otters reserve around River Tungabhadra. He said, “Earlier, before the declaration of this region as an otters’ reserve, people used to hunt otters illegally without any restrictions. There were no regulations on poaching or sand-quarrying in that area. This has led not only to the endangerment of otters, but also other species. By establishing an otters’ reserve, we are not only protecting otters, but also numerous other creatures to keep the food web stable.”
Has the declaration of an otters reserve worked?
Pampapathi said that, while dynamite fishing and poaching has decreased in this region, he wasn’t sure about the law enforcement in the other two regions. He claimed that there had been poaching cases registered in Koppal, but he wasn’t sure about how that case was dealt with. He wasn’t sure whether the poachers had been caught red-handed.
While the stretch of river from Mudlapura to Kampli has been officially declared as an otter’s reserve, the region around Siruguppa didn’t really fall under this. This was why law enforcement wasn’t strict around the village.
Pampapathi claimed that there had been propositions made to extend the reserve from Kampli to Siruguppa in order to better protect the otters around this area too. Dr. Samad Kottur agrees with the idea of expansion of an otters’ reserve, while A.N. Yellappa Reddy practically called the River Tungabhadra Otters’ Reserve declaration useless because he believed that it should be implemented across the globe.
Mrs. Sugandhi, a journalist and wildlife photographer said, “It’s not easy to spot these otters. While I went on a project there, I stayed for months in that area to do some research and actually see them without frightening them.” She went there for a research program headed by Dr. Gopakumar Menon.
“I still believe that the danger these otters are facing is not completely solved. Strict law enforcement and awareness could be the key solutions for the threat these otters are still facing,” she added.
Dr. Samad Kottur said, “As of 2017, we had spotted 147 positive sites where these otters were dwelling around River Tungabhadra Otters Reserve. Now, I believe there are around 156 sites. It is very difficult to keep track of otters and arrive at an accurate number. I believe the number of otters is stable. ”
Why do we need these otters?
JLR explore states that, Nicole Duplaix, from the Otter Specialist Group at IUCN gave a logical explanation for this question. She said that the balance of any healthy ecosystem can be understood through the predators in existence in that particular food chain. When a forest is packed with wolves, lions and grizzly bears, we can say it’s a healthy forest. When a coral reef is complete with sharks, we can say it’s a healthy reef. Similarly, when a riverside is full of predators like otters, we will know that it’s a healthy waterway.
Dr. Samad Kottur has added his inputs here too. He said, “We could say that otters are ambassadors of the wetlands. Otters dwell only in places where the water body is healthy. A water body being healthy does not affect only the otters, but all other forms of aquatic life like fish, crocodiles, and turtles.”
Meena, an environmental science graduate, explained the chain reaction that could occur when otters become extinct. “Otters don’t have a direct impact on humans. When they go extinct, one element in the aquatic food chain is removed. For example, if there are no more otters in a river, the number of fish there will increase abnormally. That water body will not be equipped to supply enough food for all the fish in the river. This will result in the death of fish there, that will consequently lead to the deterioration in the river water’s quality,” she stated.
“Imagine this happening in every water body. Aquatic eco-system could lose numerous species, which will then affect our lives. The change won’t be felt immediately,” she added.
What’s happening across the globe?
Across the globe, there are 13 species of otters. Initially, there were 14 types of otters, but one type was declared extinct in September 2012. The Japanese river otter, which hadn’t been spotted for over 30 years, went extinct mainly due to poaching and pollution of their habitat. The other species may go the same way if they aren’t protected carefully.
While these two species of otters are endangered in India, sea otters are facing threats in other parts of the world. Defenders of Wildlife states that there used to be around one million sea otters earlier. They have been endangered since they were hunted by fur traders. Other reasons like pollution of their habitat and oil spills have also resulted in a drastic fall in sea otter numbers. The website also states that sea otters were later entitled to protection through the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911. They were also listed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Acts in the 1970s. Though the sea otter numbers have increased in other countries, they are nowhere near the original count.
Nicole has stated in JLR Explore that the existence of otters is an indication of a healthy and flourishing river ecosystem. Their extinction could throw the entire food chain out of control. She has added that our lives and the otters’ lives are connected inextricably.
Meena has conveyed that, if one species in a food chain goes extinct, it’s a warning for human beings to ensure that the others don’t go the same way.
In simpler terms, if the river ecosystem does not exist, we don’t exist.