In South India, otters are called neer naai or neer naaya, epithets that literally translate to water dog. These seem apt, considering the canine gregariousness of otters. “They move in small packs called romps, inhabiting rivers and streams, with sea otters being an exception,” says Bengaluru-based Gopakumar Menon, executive director, Nityata River Otter Conservancy, a volunteer group focused on the protection of otters and otter habitat in the Cauvery River and its tributaries. Menon describes otters as “cute”, adding that romps, in their playfulness, have even mock-attacked crocodiles, driving them to exhaustion.
There are drawbacks to being “cute” and playful, though. Their pups are in high demand in the international markets as pets. Some media reports suggest that an otter pup can fetch $10,000 in the Japanese market, where otter cafés — similar to dog and cat cafés — are a draw. TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, in their 2016-17 report identified 10 otter cafés in Japan. South Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand are also thriving markets for otter pups. But unlike dogs and cats, otters are not domesticated animals. Like crocodiles, they are apex predators in rivers.
In its investigation on worldwide otter trade, released earlier this year, the World Animal Protection found that the populations of Asian small-clawed otters and smooth-coated otters have declined by more than 30 per cent in the last 30 years. Hopefully, things will change for the better with a blanket ban on trade in these two otter species that has come into effect on August 26, 2019. Countries that are bound to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to move both from CITES Appendix II, which lists vulnerable species, to Appendix I, which lists species that are threatened with extinction and may be vulnerable to trade. This raises the conservation priority of the species.
The Asian small-clawed otter and smooth-coated otter are prized in the international market — the former as a pet and the latter for its pelt. India has both these species, as well as the Eurasian otter. The first two are red-listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) while the third is listed as near threatened.
Since all three species of otters are already given the highest degree of protection under Indian law, CITES Appendix I listing will not have a major implication on the legal status of otters here. However, according to Avinash Basker, head of legal programme at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, Delhi, what will change is the legal status of those otters that are taken out of India.
The demand for otter parts and derivatives mainly comes from abroad, and seizure of otters in transit and in destination countries will result in higher penalties in the domestic legislations of those countries. It will become difficult to launder illegally-acquired specimens into legal international trade. “Appendix I listing will also help address the laundering of wild otters as captive-bred once since any such trade can now only occur from a facility after it is registered by the CITES secretariat, a process that involves proper scrutiny,” says Basker.
TRAFFIC, in their study on illegal otter trade in select Asian countries between 1980 and 2015, found that India had, by far, the most reported otter seizures with 2,949 pelts seized. According to Katrina Fernandez, director of Wild Otters Research and deputy coordinator for education and outreach IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group, the figures seem staggering because India’s enforcement is better. Habitat loss, she says, is the bigger problem, not poaching.
Menon adds that, while habitat loss is a major threat, other factors such as deforestation, pesticides, fishing using dynamites, dams, are all significant threats to India’s otter population. “Fisherfolk find them a nuisance since they eat fish out of gillnets, so they are caught and killed. Fisherfolk even smoke otters out of their dens and kill them,” says Menon.
The absence of otters from their habitats indicates that the health of the riverine systems needs attention. “As apex predators, otters are at the top of the food chain. In the event of their disappearance from an ecosystem, there is a chance of the entire ecosystem cascading, causing an imbalance,” says Fernandez.
Otters are adaptable. In research conducted by the Wildlife Trust of india, otter presence was found in certain stretches of the Cauvery in Karnataka, where anthropogenic stressers, like pesticide-intensive agriculture, sand mining and fishing, were present. They, however, thrive in a healthy riparian habitat marked by a good buffer (forest strips on either side of the river), healthy vegetation, good water quality and a healthy fish stock and invertebrate life.
The efforts to save otters should begin with identifying their habitats, suggest experts. While educating the public as well as policymakers on the need to conserve the species, is important, Menon suggests policy-level interventions to protect and restore riparian buffers. “We need more conservationists and field biologists to study them. We need to get the forest department involved, too,” says Fernandez.
Conservation efforts must begin with containing the damage being done to rivers, due to damming and dynamiting, says Menon. Basker suggests that while enforcement in India is good, there is a lot of room for improvement. Habitat stresses that drive away otters need to be managed too. In India, unfortunately, wildlife conservation has come to mean protecting forests and the big cats. Smaller creatures, which don’t generate publicity like the tigers of Ranthambore or the lions of Gir, don’t get as much attention. Otters, Menon says, deserve attention because they are indicators of the health of a riverine ecosystem which plays as crucial a part in maintaining the ecological balance as the forests that house the big cats.
Arathi Menon is a Mysuru-based writer and yoga practitioner