So after an intense meeting with forest department on tiger corridor conservation, I had the weekend free and decided to invite myself for a visit to a tribal hamlet inside Balaghat forest range with the Satpura-Maikal Landscape (SML) team. The meeting with the community was interesting, and we had a lively discussion on the livelihoods, government development schemes and connectivity issues inside the forest. After the interaction with villagers, we decided to visit a nearby stream called Uskal Nallah where our team had recorded the presence of Eurasian otters.

The Balaghat forest is probably one of the best, intact forests one can find outside of the protected areas in the country (we had already spotted a pack of dholes on the way to the hamlet in the morning!) and the streams like Uskal really turn it into a serene experience.

© Sanket Bhale/WWF-India

As we walked along the Uskal, there were clear signs of otters on the banks of the stream.

While it may seem like the stream has a healthy ecosystem for the species, all is not well in this paradise. Along with otter footprints and scat (a scientific word for animal poo), we also found clear signs of eutrophication. Eutrophication is when there are excess nutrients found in the water – usually due to fertilizers or chemicals that find their way into the water. In this case, it was possibly due to agricultural run-offs from the villages upstream.

Eutrophication leads to algal bloom, which in turn leads to lower levels of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) in the water. Dissolved oxygen is essential for fish to survive ― and an otter’s diet is made up almost entirely of fish. A quick benthic biota test (a test based on the presence of certain ‘bugs in the mud’) also suggested that the DO levels were fairly low in the water. Avinash, our field assistant in Balaghat, also found a fishing contraption with sharpened sticks and a bark of a (mildly) poisonous tree under a rock on the banks of the stream.

Both these threats highlight a need to work closely with the communities near the forests on alternate and sustainable livelihoods.

The next step for us would be to undertake a comprehensive analysis of water quality in the stream and possibly work with the communities upstream on organic farming and alternative livelihood options.

An exciting discovery, a familiar threat and now, a community-based solution – Uskal Nallah has the makings of a great conservation success story! 

© Mohd. Shahnawaz Khan/WWF-India
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