Under Fire: Smooth‑coated Otters on the Cauvery
The habitat of smooth-coated otters is severely threatened by numerous activities. As they adapt to changes, they come into increased conflict with humans
Along the Cauvery River, where many fishers consider otters a threat to their livelihood, some, like Siddhu from Sri Rangarajapura, try to live alongside them. Others use snares to kill otters in retaliation for raiding fish from their nets and leaving them empty and hole-ridden.
“No one dares to keep snares here”, says Shivu, as they know he’s been monitoring smooth-coated otters on a small island on the Cauvery near his village of Hemmige, about 50 km from Mysore. Otters frequent the island, rolling in its abundant sand to groom their fur. The island is free of human activity and has plenty of wild trees, bushes, and grasses. Weaver birds chirp as they weave their nest in a tree nearby, and strong evening winds ripple over the Cauvery.
Shivu explains that snares are cheap and easy to make with a simple motorbike clutch wire. When an animal passes through the loop, the wire locks, traps, and eventually kills the animal. Only a few, like the “red belted one”, survive the ordeal. Snares have been found near the riverside towns of Gargeshwari, Medini, Mavanahalli, and BG Mole. “The locations are a giveaway that fishers put snares where they know otters come. We have found decomposed carcasses,” says Gopakumar Menon, a Bangalore-based otter conservationist who recruited Shivu to keep track of otters here.
Menon founded an NGO, the Nityata Foundation, in 2002, primarily to support young researchers and run camera-trap projects. While rafting down the Cauvery River one day, he heard some men talking about poaching otters. Curious, he started looking for otters and learnt they were heavily poached; the poachers laid traps, killed, skinned them, and smuggled their hides to foreign markets.
Starting from the late 90s, the Cauvery’s otter population has been almost wiped out by poaching. “After organised poaching came to an end around 2012, their numbers may have increased,” Menon says. However, he says there is no record of their population before the poaching.
Of the three otter species native to India, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Eurasian otter as “Near Threatened” and the smooth-coated otter and small-clawed otter as “Vulnerable”. Due to the efforts of conservationists like Menon, who highlighted the decline in otter populations, India’s river otters received the highest level of protection from CITES (an international treaty protecting endangered plants and animals) in 2018. While this addressed the illegal trade, otters remain under threat because of conflict with fishers, river pollution, and land use changes.
“Decline in the number of fish due to river water pollution, untreated sewage, industrial effluents, and agricultural run-off has led to conflict with fishermen,” according to Sugandhi Rana, a self-taught expert on otters. “Sand mining used to be a threat in some areas; it affects the ecology of the river and impacts fish breeding; otters need sandbanks to roll on to keep their skin healthy.”
Otters are adaptable, intelligent animals. “When fishermen place nets in the river, otters steal the fish from the net,” Menon admits. “But the problem is not that there are too many otters, as fishermen seem to think. There are too many fishermen and not enough fish.”
To create awareness about otters and the threats they face, Menon renamed his NGO the River Otter Conservancy in 2013. He started surveying otters in the Cauvery River annually. Otters are shy creatures, making direct sightings difficult. Conservationists rely on indirect signs such as otter droppings (spraints) and tracks in the sand.
Menon conducts surveys with volunteers, and local fishers like Shivu row them in coracles on the river. Over the years, Shivu has learnt to spot an otter den. The sites are often difficult for coracles to reach. When Shivu locates one, he, Menon, and the volunteers sit on the riverbank for hours trying to listen to pup calls. They also look for active den sites and sand tracks — then, without disturbing them or going too close, they mark these as important sites for conservation.
Menon says that otter pups are vulnerable until they are ten weeks old and become adept at swimming. Shivu keeps an eye on the dens to ensure the pups are not harmed. Otters shift dens from one place to another almost every month. Shivu stays alert to keep track of them. “One time, it took me 15 days to find a relocated den,” he says.
Pups face numerous threats. Only one adult stays behind when a pack of otters is out hunting. Sometimes fishers set dens on fire, and not all the young escape. Pups are also prone to drowning if water levels increase. In some places, fishers may set dogs out to kill pups.
Shivu has been helping with the otter surveys for the last ten years and has been threatened by other fishers for advocating otter conservation. “We don’t survey some parts of the river where dynamiting is rampant,” he says. “Those fishermen are hostile. As soon as they see me, they attack me.”
Shivu and Menon have also conducted community outreach programs, such as street theatre performances themed around discouraging dynamite fishing. Menon works with fishers to reduce conflict with smooth-coated otters. “They need to explore other methods of fishing that are more sustainable,” he says. “The magic bullet would be to have a net that lasts long and cannot be torn by otters.”
While conflict with big mammals makes headlines in India, conflict with small aquatic animals often goes unnoticed. In other parts of the world (such as Germany or the Czech Republic) where conflict with otters exists, authorities have tried compensation schemes or setting up fishers’ organisations to involve them directly in conflict mitigation.
In India, conservation currently depends on local stewards like Shivu and Menon. Back on the river island, it is dusk. Shivu is hopeful we will see a pack of otters as it is their favourite time to come ashore. But he warns that otters are wary of humans. We start walking along the island’s edge, and he excitedly points to otter tracks in the sand, but we never see the otters themselves.
Otters are indicator species. Their presence in significant numbers indicates the river ecosystem is healthy. Perhaps sustained conservation efforts will allow the Cauvery and its otters to rebound to their previous glory.
This story is the third of a three-part series on the Cauvery river ecosystem, the otters that inhabit it and the fishers who depend on it for their livelihoods. Read part one and part two to learn more.
The reporting for this series was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women Journalists.