Wildlife conservation is intricately linked with the health of surrounding ecosystems. In this VIEWS, Atul Borker explores this relationship through an interesting wildlife species – the otter.

In a world of growing urbanization, keeping rivers and wetlands pollution-free is a challenge. Otters are considered bio-indicators of an aquatic ecosystem. Their presence in a river is an indicator of good water quality. This also means that otters become very vulnerable when pollutants enter the river.

Otters, the only semi-aquatic mammal found in the Indian subcontinent, is the top predator of a river ecosystem. Being an apex predator, they play a key role in ecosystem management. Otters are carnivores that primarily feed on fish and crustaceans. They have a good sense of smell, vision, and hearing. Their long whiskers are well-suited to sense vibrations caused by the movement of fish in the water which allows them to catch their prey even at night and in muddy waters. Equipped with webbed feet and a hydrodynamic body, otters are fast swimmers. Additionally, their dense fur insulates them from challenging weather conditions. There are 13 species of otters found in the world and India is home to three of them: the Asian small-clawed otter, the Eurasian otter, and the smooth-coated otter.

A smooth-coated otter parent swimming along with two of its pups. The pups are yet to develop swimming expertise. This is one of the first swims of their life. 
Otters are comfortable on land too. This individual is standing on two legs to peep through the grass and satisfy their curiosity. 
Smooth-coated otters are excellent swimmers. 

Sharing Landscape with Humans 

Animals and humans sharing a landscape are common in a country with a very high population like India. According to the National Wildlife Database Cell, India has a network of 998 Natural Protected Areas, including 106 National Parks, 567 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 105 Conservation Reserves, and 220 Community Reserves covering a total of 1,73,629.52 square kilometers of geographical area in the country. This is only 5.28% of India’s total landmass. As otters are a river-dependent species, their movement cannot be restricted only to protected areas. As a result, most otter populations are found outside the protected boundaries. In the State of Goa, over 95% of the smooth-coated otter population lies outside the protected area. Otters do come in close contact with people when they share a landscape. In areas of long-term co-habitation, otters adapt to the human modifications of the landscape while humans tolerate their presence.

A fisherman casting his net in an otter habitat. 
A smooth-coated otter family heading towards the fishing net. Otters often feed from man-made fishing pools. At times they even feed on the fish caught in fishing nets. 

Conservation Research Before Conservation Action

Like all species, otters adapt or try to adapt, to the changes they encounter in their habitat. As conservationists, we need to research and understand their adaptations. This knowledge plays a key role in our ability to take correct conservation actions. It is important to look for small, well-planned, meaningful conservation interventions with a higher probability of success. For example, an otter family has adapted to fish in a river stretch that undergoes sand mining activity. In such a scenario, it is important for a conservationist to ensure that sand mining in this specific river stretch is not rampant. On the other hand, trying to stop sand mining completely by assuming that it is a threat to otters in this specific locality may also not be a wise conservation action.

Despite originally being a freshwater species, otters have adapted very well to mangroves and brackish waters. Mangroves are now home to significant smooth-coated otter populations. 
A smooth-coated otter family resting on a human-made mud embankment. These mud embankments are actively used by otters to rest, defecate, and sometimes build dens in certain scenarios. From a conservation perspective, it is important to ensure that otters can climb these mud embankments to utilize them. 
This smooth-coated otter family has adapted to cross the road on a regular basis. It is a local adaptation technique, specific to this individual family and is passed on from one generation to another. In such scenarios, there is no need for any conservation intervention to support otters crossing the road. 

Lesser-known Wildlife 

Like otters, there are many other lesser-known animals that need our support for their long-term survival. Indian Pangolin, Slender Loris, Clouded Leopard, Asiatic Golden Cat, Andaman Shrew, Pygmy Hog, and Namdhapa Flying Squirrel to name a few are vulnerable to various threats caused by urbanization. These species are either threatened or near-threatened to extinction as per the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As these species are lesser-known, there is scarcely any information pertaining to their conservation needs. Also, funds available for the conservation of these species are limited. It is important for people interested in wildlife conservation to get to know lesser-known wildlife and set up or participate in conservation projects.

Slender Loris is the only nocturnal primate found in India. The individual in this photo is feeling content as it has just finished courtship. It is looking upwards at its partner. 
Discover Sustainable India