Lutra perspicillata Smooth-coated otter  / ©: Mikaail KAVANAGH/WWF
Lutra perspicillata Smooth-coated otter
Smooth-coated Otter (Lutra perspicillata)

Otters are members of the mammalian family called Mustelidae. They are shy and have elusive habits, adapting to a variety of habitats ranging from marine to freshwater environments. Otters are invariably associated with water, with a few exceptions. Aonyx congica (African clawless Otter) found in Central Equatorial Africa, are least adapted aquatically while Enhydra lutris , having completely severed their dependence on freshwater, are a totally marine species, so much so that they even give birth in water. Otters are mainly active around dawn and dusk, being, what is known as, crepuscular.

Otters are found the world over, except in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and other oceanic islands. India is home to 3 of the 13 species of otters found worldwide. These are - Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra); Smooth-coated Otter (Lutra perspicillata) and Small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). The Smooth-coated Otter is distributed throughout the country from the Himalayas southward. But the Common Otter and the Small-clawed Otter are restricted to the Himalayas, to the north of the Ganges and to southern India. The occurrence of all three species has been reported from northeast India and the Western Ghats. In most of their distribution range, otters occur along with gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica), and several species of turtles.

The basic family group consists of the mother and her pups, the father joining the group only occasionally. It appears that otters live a nomadic life between March and August, and settle between September and February to mate, breed and rear their pups. Fish forms the primary food item, although their diet is supplemented with rodents, snakes, amphibians, small mammals, and even young fledgling birds. The typical lifespan of otters in the wild is between 4 and 10 years, although no conclusive studies have been made. A Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) measures approximately 2m in length and weighs 32 kg while the Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinereus) is the smallest, rarely over a metre in overall length, and weighs 2 - 5 kg.

Humans have had a long, and unique association with otters. In some parts of the world they have been revered as deities, while in others they have been loathed as vermin. There are stone relics depicting otters at the Borobudur Temple (Indonesia), while in Pakistan and Bangladesh, otters have been trained to drive fish towards nets, and have been used as 'decoys' for capturing dolphins. Otters, being intelligent, playful and with an appealing appearance, form popular exhibits in zoological parks.

Infrastructural developments coupled with various other forms of disturbances have led to habitat destruction, making otter populations extremely vulnerable, being left isolated and, as a result, the local groups become dangerously inbred. Otters, as high-order carnivores at the top of their small niche eco-systems, metabolise poison slowly, storing it in their fatty tissues until they need to draw on these energy reserves. There is no evidence that chemical poisons kill otters.

For centuries, otters have been mercilessly killed for their fur, which is dense and very duarable, so much so that furriers consider it the 'diamond' of the fur business. In India, the nomadic hunting tribes such as Gilhara, Badiya and Jogis are known to regularly kill otters for their skin and flesh. Illegal trade of otter pelts being rampant in many parts of south Asia, particularly in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh mainly for export to rich markets like China, has actually abetted deliberate trapping. In Tibet, otter skins are used to adorn the traditional costume 'Chuba' and head gears are decorated with trophies worn during festivals and sports. According to wildlife trade estimates, an otter skin in Tibet fetches 350 Chinese Yuan and can be sold to leather factories for 90-100 US dollars in Thailand. Its other body parts are believed to possess therapeutic properties. Often seizures of large cache of otter skins have been reported during raids for tiger and leopard skins, though the enforcement agencies have not really been looking for them. There seems to be no attempt at collecting timeline information on otters, and unless the species is consciously monitored, soon enough, there will be very few otters left.

WWF-India strives to look into the future of otter conservation efforts in India, so as to provide a strong basis in helping facilitate future conservation management of this species. The documentation of past, present, and potential future distribution of otters is vital for understanding their population dynamics, and to plan species-oriented conservation programmes. It is important to reinforce a sympathetic attitude towards the plight faced by the otters, stimulating more research and conservation effort for this species. Policy advocacy will be promoted to ensure long term survival of otters in their natural habitats with support from the Grovernment for their conservation. The main consideration at this time is to start the otter conservation ball rolling in India before it is too late.