Species in Focus

© MKS Pasha/TRAFFIC-India


It provides unalloyed pleasure to watch otters swimming and several documentary films have filmed them frolicking in water. An otter was the central character in the film ‘Ring of Bright Water’ based on the famous book of the same name by British naturalist Gavin Maxwell.

Otters have long, slim bodies and relatively short limbs, with webbed paws. They have sharp claws on their feet, and have long muscular tails.They have a very soft, insulated underfur which is protected by their outer layer of long guard hair. This traps a layer of air, and keeps them dry and warm under water.

For most otters, fish is the primary staple of their diet. This is often supplemented by frogs, crayfish and crabs. Some otters are expert at opening shellfish, and others will feed on available small mammals or birds. Prey-dependence leaves otters very vulnerable to prey depletion.
Otters are very active, chasing prey in the water or searching the beds of rivers and lakes. Otters live beside water, entering it mainly to hunt or travel, otherwise spending much of their time on land to avoid their fur becoming waterlogged. Otters are playful animals and appear to engage in various behaviors for sheer enjoyment. Different species vary in their social structure, with some being largely solitary, while others live in groups.

Three species of otters are reported from India; Common Otter Lutra lutra, Smooth Coated Otter Lutra perspicillata and Clawless Otter Aonyx cinerea.

All three species of otters are protected in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA) and are listed under CITES Appendices as follows:

Common Otter: CITES Appendix I; WPA Schedule II
Smooth Coated Otter: CITES Appendix II; WPA Schedule II
Clawless Otter: CITES Appendix II; WPA Schedule I

In India, Otters are reportedly breeding in Corbett and Dudhwa National Parks and Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in north; Kaziranga National Park in North East; Sunderbans, Bhitarkanika and Coringa in the eastern coast; and Periyar and Nagarhole National Parks in the South.

The animal features in trade in India principally for its skin. Most seizures of big cat products are accompanied by otter skins. A major wildlife seizure in New Delhi in November 2009 consisting of 30 kg of tiger bones, two tiger skins and two leopard skins also included seven otter skins.

Otters constitute an integral part of any wetland conservation programme in India since they indicate the health and stability of the wetlands ecosystem. WWF- India is presently documenting the past, present, and potential future distribution of otters across the country. This is vital for understanding their population dynamics, and to plan species-oriented conservation programme to strengthen more research and conservation effort for these species. TRAFFIC is also monitoring and documenting the trade in otter skins in an effort to better enforce regulatory measures to curb it.
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