"In our mad rush to reach the few remaining "wild-enough" destinations, we often speed past small towns, hillocks, agricultural fields, village tanks and rivers, without as much as a sideward glance. The avid birder might stop at a tank or two, glass a Pheasant-tailed Jacana walking daintily over lilies, or the Purple Heron standing motionless in a backdrop of wind-tossed rushes and reeds. The river in the distance continues to flow by, unperturbed, its surface only broken every now and then by a pack of otters.... "
On the way to Kabini, one of India's most famous wildlife destinations, (which ironically is a man-made reservoir that submerged a large tract of deciduous forest and displaced Kurubas and other communities living there), we cross the Kaveri near Srirangapatna and its tributaries later on. A few might decide to stop by, look for River Terns wheeling around and diving every few minutes for fish, or Pied Kingfishers hovering mid-air. They might notice the odd fisherman or two trying their luck by fishing during the day, or the crumbling bridge built during the Tipu era, standing witness to the docile Kaveri (having been tamed by the famous KRS dam) making her way towards the Bay more than 600 kilometres away. The lucky one might have noticed heads-in-the-water (read otters) patrolling the waters, to disappear and reappear in a different place every few minutes.
But the tiger on the game road, the elephants by the backwaters, or the leopard on the tree cannot be kept waiting, and off they troop away leaving the terns, kingfishers, herons, and otters as mere entries in a notebook, or on memory cards. Little do they realise that the river they have left behind, the Kaveri, might actually be one of the last surviving strongholds of the otter. Neer-nai as they are often referred to as, might not be adorned with stripes or rosettes, or tusks or horns, and might appear drab brown at a casual glance, but hang in there for a wee bit longer and you will see why these animals are considered as top predators of most Indian river-systems i.e., before they were wiped out.
There are two species of otters in southern India, Smooth-coated Otters and the Small-clawed Otters. Smooth-coated Otters are closely related to the Giant Otters of South America and are Asia's largest otters while the Small-clawed are the world's smallest. They are highly social and are often seen in packs numbering upto 15! Being social animals, they are a delight to watch. The Smooth-coated Otters are mostly found in the plains' rivers and are known to be diurnal. The otters most people see at Kabini or Kaveri are these larger ones.
The more elusive Small-clawed Otters are found closer to the hills, in clear hill and mountain streams in the Western Ghats and the north-east. There have been many incidents recorded of the larger neer-nais harassing basking muggers, and driving them away. They mostly feed on fish (more than 90% of their diet is fish) and that makes them quite unpopular among fishermen (along rivers). The Small-clawed Otters on the other hand, feed mostly on crustaceans and hunt in shallow streams and along shallow stretches of rivers. They tend to be more nocturnal, hence rarely seen. They are found along the Kaveri, but closer to the hills in Coorg.
You will agree when I say that rivers are more exploited, used, modified than most terrestrial ecosystems. Let us consider the Kaveri as an example of a major Indian river. It supplies drinking water to the people of Bangalore (estimated population approx 8 million), Mysore (approx 2-3 million), a million in between, and many millions downstream in Tamil Nadu. Then there is agriculture which consumes more water than anything else, especially sugarcane cultivation. A kilogram of processed sugar that we buy in shops needs 25000 litres of water!
Let's throw in one more example of what rivers are exploited for – sand. Where do you think the sand that Bangalore needs to satisfy its infrastructure demand comes from? Easy, the Kaveri basin of course! I will stop now with examples of how our rivers are often exploited for I would need more than a few hours to list them down.
Who do you think pays the price for this unquenchable thirst for water and sand (and increasingly, electricity) - fishermen who are dependent on the river for their livelihood, two unique and endangered species of otters, the muggers, River Terns, kingfishers, Mahseer and other native fish that the Kaveri was once famous for, and numerous temples and structures that once dotted the river banks. The problems don't just end there. Ill-conceived mini-hydels that fragment rivers in the name of green energy are turning out to be very popular. A few megawatts of electricity are generated during the monsoon months. Perhaps, much can be saved if issues pertaining to transmission losses (that vary between 30-40%) in our country can be addressed. The reality of "green energy" is indeed very real and alarming.
The story of rivers (& otters) has anything but a happy ending. Dynamiting for fish, and poaching otters for their pelt continue to decimate both fisheries and otter populations across most Indian rivers. Otter pelts along with tiger and leopard pelts make their way across the borders, usually bound for markets in China and Tibet. The scale of otter pelt seizures was such that for every tiger and leopard pelt seized, there would be dozens of otter pelts seized too. Lower Chambal, which once boasted of the first radio telemetry study on otters in India hasn't recorded a single otter in over a decade, while not too far away battle lines were being drawn over the demise of the tiger in Sariska. The critically endangered Gharial too is tottering on the edge, caught in the middle, between sand mining, and a dam-building - water diversion spree while successive governments dither over policies and committees and the river and its life are caught in a deadly downward spiral. In fact, in India there could be nothing rarer than an undammed river!
How can India's network of small and fragmented protected areas, mostly demarcated to protect charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants, rhinos, or headwaters, protect animals associated with large linear systems like rivers? Can otters and crocodiles continue to share space with millions of people and their ever increasing demands on these thin strands that sustain life well beyond the blue lines that they are depicted as on maps? And with increasing levels of intolerance and conflict there can only be one obvious victor unless we start looking at rivers as a living & breathing system and not just as taps that can be turned on and off.
On your next trip to Kabini (or Nagarahole or Bandipur or BRT), pause when you reach the Kaveri, and look down to check if your friends, the River Terns and otters are still frolicking in its waters.
To highlight these very issues, and to train young biologists in otter-research, the IUCN Otter Specialist Group in collaboration with NCBS is organising a South Asia Otter Conservation Workshop from November 25 to 29. More information is available on the workshop website – ottersindia2013.weebly.com.
Jungle Lodges & Resorts have extended their support to this event by organising a field session at their camp site in Bheemeshwari, which is also one of India's finest otter habitats