Why the Otters Left Goa – and Are Coming Back Now

Illegal sand- and iron-ore-mining around Goa has fragmented otters’ habitats and left waterbodies polluted and bereft of fish. However, they’re making a guarded comeback.

The presence of otters signals that a riverine ecosystem is healthy. Credit: WildOtters

The presence of otters signals that a riverine ecosystem is healthy. Credit: WildOtters

Mapusa, Goa: Dappled sunlight on water, summer. I am rudely awakened by a friend who insists there is an otter frolicking in the river that courses through my backyard. Bewildered by the fact that I have lived in Goa for six months without seeing one, I follow her in a daze. But there it really is, jumping in and out of the water, sunning itself on the opposite bank, coat shining under the morning light. As a cormorant spreads its dark, glossy wings to dry off, a pair of dazzling blue kingfishers flit past. My first otter sighting – leaving in its wake an urge to learn and see more.

Otters are semi-amphibious mammals found in stretches all over the world. There are 13 species of otters in the wild today, most of which are on the ‘red list of threatened species’ made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This does not portend well for the freshwater ecosystem because the otter is an apex predator: they are at the top of the predatory chain, keeping the population of animals that follow it in the chain in check.

Of the 13 species, four species are found in Asia – the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra), the Hairy-nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana), the Asian Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinereus) and the Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata). Barring the Hairy-nosed Otter, the rest can be found in India.

In July 2016, TRAFFIC, a global wildlife-trade-monitoring network, released a report published called ‘Illegal Otter Trade: An Analysis of seizures in Selected Asian Countries (1980-2015)’. TRAFFIC is an alliance between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the IUCN. According to the report, between 1980 and 2015, India reported 83 seizures, amounting to an overwhelming 51.6% of all recorded seizures. Even when it came to the number of individual skins seized it led the tally, with 50.1% being seized in India – a total of 2,949 individuals.

The report categorically warns that these numbers are under-reported and that the real numbers could be far higher. The Wildlife Protection Society of India was one of the Indian organisations that provided data for the report. Tito Joseph, the coordinator of the anti-poaching programme, says that while they have records of 1,330 otter skins being seized from illegal wildlife trade, only 11 instances of poaching were detected during the same time period (1980-2015). “We are failing to detect poaching because of lack of awareness and law enforcement. Only trade is being detected during transportation,” he adds.

Credit: WildOtters

Credit: WildOtters

In such a dismal setting, it comes as some good news that two species of otters – the Smooth-coated Otter and the Small-clawed Otter – seem to be doing quite well for themselves in Goa. Three years ago, no one knew anything about the otter populations here, much less about the presence of small-clawed otters. How things have changed.

WildOtters is an organisation based in Goa that undertakes conservation, outreach and documentation projects about otters. It is run by Atul Borker, a member of the IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group. Borker is an engineer by training but started working in wildlife conservation in 2013 with the Mhadei Research Centre. He formed WildOtters in 2014.

The first task before the WildOtters team after it was founded was to map the possible otter habitats in Goa, which has a total of 873 kilometres of river length. The next was to see which kind of otters were where. They did this using occupancy sampling, which literally involved walking up and down the banks of the rivers to find signs of otter presence. They also talked to fishermen about where they had spotted otters through years of familiarity with the landscape. After two years, in 2016, WildOtters is finished with their first phase.

How many did they find? The answer is a lot harder to come by than I expected. Getting a population estimate for otters is a very tricky business, especially so in an area like Goa where no historical data is available. Otters have no individual markings and this makes it hard to keep track of them. There is always a risk of recounting. And if the animal is as elusive as the otter, of course there lies the possibility of missing some entirely. Borker is reluctant to give me a number; instead, he says, “I can give you a rough estimate, but please understand that there could be a huge margin of error in the numbers.” According to him, based on camera trapping and considerations of home range, there could be between 300 to 500 Smooth-coated and 50 to 100 Small-clawed Otters in the state.

In today’s human-modified landscape, where otter habitats are shrinking because human population is growing, there is an observable overlap in the territories of otter families, making counting that much more difficult. Many times, several families will gather at a neutral location and forage together.

Credit: WildOtters

Credit: WildOtters

Another point of interest is transient otters. An adult otter will move out from his or her family and two transient otters will meet to form a new family. These transient members are hard to find, being quite reclusive. Borker laments the lack of information to be found about transient otters. “What are the family dynamics? Do these transient otters eventually rejoin their families? How many are successful in finding mates? There are a lot of things we don’t know.”

Information about habitats and habitat preferences of the two species is easier to come by. There is a fairly good distribution of otters across the state of Goa. While the Smooth-coated ones are around the mangroves that dot large parts of the state, the Small-clawed ones are present in and around the four sanctuaries in the centre of Goa: Mhadei, Mahavir, Mollem and Netravali. The Small-clawed species, which is the smaller of the two (and the smallest otter of them all), is often found close to shallow forest streams (about 1-1.5 metres in depth), while the Smooth-coated otters have adapted to survive in the brackish waters of the mangroves.

Their diets are different, too, which underlies the preference of habitat. While Small-clawed Otters will feed mainly on crabs and other crustaceans, the main fare for Smooth-coated Otters is fish. Only if fish aren’t available will they supplement their diet with crabs. Borker enthusiastically launches into the reason behind this divergence in food habits: “There are evolutionary reasons for this, to do with how their brain senses have developed. Imagine a cat – that is how the Smooth-coated Otter’s brain works. If you feed a cat, the animal’s brain tells it to use its mouth to eat. You will never see a cat holding food up to its mouth and eating with its paw. Similarly, Smooth-coated Otters will swim and catch their prey with their mouths. That is just how they are oriented.

“On the other hand, if you give food to humans, they use their hands to move the food to their mouths. The same idea applies to the Small-clawed Otters: they have a slightly more advanced brain than their cousins and feed themselves using their claws. This is why they are more suited to catch crabs. So Small-clawed Otters will use their paws to catch crabs that hide under larger rocks in shallow streams. The webbing in the paws is also different in both species, with the Smooth-coated Otters having more of it to catch fish easily. Their tails are flatter too, so they move faster in water.”

At the WildOtters field office in Sanquelim in north Goa, Hannah Krupa shows me the paw print of a smooth coated otter. She has been working with WildOtters for a year, taking up research before she embarks on her masters programme. It will revolve around otters, she assures me. In between looking at otter photographs and videos, Borker and Krupa talk about the next phase of their work.

Credit: WildOtters

Credit: WildOtters

“Once we had marked their presence, we had to decide our next priorities. We wanted to look at behaviour patterns, adaptation methods, social structures and activity patterns,” they tell me. With the Small-clawed Otters, a part of their research is focussed on how climate change affects their habitat and behaviour. “Due to the rise in temperature, the monsoons have been erratic. These otters live very close to forest streams and their dens are close to the water. If there is a sudden shower or cloudburst, the water level in the stream rises and leads to flooding of dens. On the other hand, during harsh summers, the streams dry up. Their habitat dries off, their prey hides,” Borker explains. By looking at these changes, they are trying to understand how the vulnerable Small-clawed Otters are to rising temperatures. However, more data is needed to form conclusions.

As for Smooth-coated Otters, an interesting thing the WildOtters team is looking at is what kind of fish they are eating. Is it commercially important fish or not? They are also looking at the interactions between Smooth-coated Otters and fishermen. Since this species is found by the mangroves, it often comes in contact with humans. “We are looking at fishermen-otter interactions and how serious a threat this is to otter presence, but the data is not enough to comment at this point. It looks like they are doing fine, though and we have not had any serious complaints,” Borker elaborates. He laughs and attributes this to the sossegado (relaxed or lazy) attitude of Goans. It’s the first time I’ve heard the word used in a positive light. This research will further feed into WildOtters outreach programme.

To show me how they gather data for the various legs of their research, Borker and Krupa let me accompany them to a field station. Soon, we find ourselves walking along a mangrove in Amona, a known Smooth-coated Otter habitat. To the right is a manas, an area of empty land that is to one side of a wooden sluice gate. The gate allows water to enter the land during high tide, bringing a large cache of fish with it. This whole area then goes on auction to professional fishermen. To the left is the mangrove, removed from the manas by a narrow, winding mud path.

According to Borker and Krupa, otters prefer to feed here since there is readily available prey, but this makes the paying fishermen unhappy. Apparently, traditional, small-time fishermen are less bothered by the presence of otters. I am also told that sometimes otters feed from the nets and end up damaging it. Occasionally, they also get trapped and break the net in an attempt to free themselves. But these are very rare occurrences, perhaps as few as one or two a year.

As we come round a bend, Borker stoops to show me a mass of white and grey faeces at the edge of the road. He bends as if to do a pushup and brings his nose very close to it. “This is the right way to check a sample,” he says, “The smell will show how fresh or old it is. We sometimes find pieces of fishing net in otter poop, too.” Krupa moves in with gloves and a scooper to pick up a sample, and I am initiated into the unglamorous yet fascinating world of conservation research. The next stop is the camera trap, which is locked securely. A playback shows a dog, another dog, a man’s feet, more dogs and finally a family of otters. The black and white capture shows the ferret-like creatures walking back and forth along the back, eyes glowing bright when they turn towards the camera.

Credit: WildOtters

Credit: WildOtters

One of the things they have observed over time is that fishermen will only see the bad side of otters. To counter this, WildOtters conducts an outreach programme to teach people, especially fishermen, the benefits of having otters around – and of course the beauty. “To reduce animosity between the two parties we try to tell fisherfolk about the role of otters in the ecosystem. Otters maintain healthy fish populations. They eat these diseased fish, since a weak animal is easy prey. These diseases do not affect the otters but we fall ill,” Borker says. Otters are also the best indicators of clean water since they cannot tolerate dissolved waste. A living example of this is the St. Inez creek near Panjim. A few years ago a massive clean-up drive of the creek began, and sure enough, the otters are back along the banks now. If there are otters near you, you can rest assured that the water source contains no untreated sewage or effluents. If the otters abandon an area, it’s best that humans follow.

While there is almost no poaching of otters for their pelts observed in Goa, they do face serious threats from other quarters. Habitat loss or fragmentation is a major one, as is sand- and iron-ore-mining. Small-clawed otters live within protected areas but they still have to contend with issues like check dams and sand-mining. Plantation owners construct check dams along small river streams just outside the protected areas. This fragments the habitat and adversely affects the animals because it changes the entire dynamics of the water body.

A lot of illegal sand-mining takes place both within and without these protected areas. Miners lock water on one side of a check dam and then dredge sand from the other side, which dries up without the flowing water. Trucks often ply these routes, disturbing everything in their wake. Fish find it difficult to survive in such an environment and so this patch of habitat is lost to the otter. Moreover, otters find it very hard to move across the cemented vertical banks of these dams, which increases the effort it takes for them to move freely across what was originally their chomping ground. WildOtters has mapped a total of 172 check dams in Goa, and the numbers are bound to keep going up.

While check dams fragment habitats, iron-ore mining is worse in that it directly pollutes the water source. Waste from the pit flows into rivers, making entire lengths completely unusable for otters. However, this situation has eased slightly since the ban on mining was established.

As the field visit winds down, I am disappointed that we haven’t spotted an otter except on the camera trap. But Krupa comforts me saying field visits are always fun, and even if they don’t spot any otters, they always see something interesting. “We don’t go to the stations to find otters,” she tells me. “We go there to do our work, and if we do happen to see otters, that has been an especially good day.”

She has only spotted otters twice in her entire year here, and one of those times was in Karnataka. And yet, I have not seen two people more excited by the work they are doing, under the harsh midday Goan sun no less. I go home and put my new stickers on the wall, thinking about how beautiful it is that sometimes sea otters will hold hands when they sleep so that they don’t drift apart.

Mukta Patil is a freelance editor and writer based out of Goa.