The next time you spot a stream in the Western Ghats, keep your camera (and mobile) away, roll up your trousers and carefully make your way to the water’s edge. “Carefully” because the stones, grasses and dense bushes along these streams hold latent surprises and not all of these are encounters that you’d care to have (with pit vipers, for one!). If the water is cool and clear, go ahead and enter the water with bare feet. Make your way up- or down-stream, feeling the stones beneath your feet, hearing the many birdcalls in the canopy and taking in the beauty of the forest. You may hear odd noises too —woodpeckers at work, chirps of the giant squirrel or even the crashing sounds and swishes made by elephants as they make their way (often to where you are; that’s the only time you need to hurry). Stop by the rocks that stand out mid-stream and admire their form, shaped by millions of years of water, soil and wind. And then look closer at them or the crevices between them — for you might see a powdery white-and-grey spread or a few pellets of poop or ‘spraint’ (if they are fresh, you’d probably smell them before you see them).
You now know that you are in small-clawed otter country. Well, technically, the species is Aonyx cinereus or the Asian small-clawed Otter. Asian, because it was once found not just in India but eastwards through Southeast Asia to Philippines, Taiwan and southern China.
It’s an animal you are unlikely to see in the wild, unless you live right beside the stream or are fabulously lucky, for it is shy and reclusive by nature and largely nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). Yet, do take a chance: step out of the water after you have had your fill, take your place quietly behind some cover and wait for an early dusk to fall. If this is indeed your day, what you will see is a pack (or a ‘romp’) of two to four small mammals, each with a distinctive hump (which is characteristic of their Mustelid family), swimming and paddling mid-stream or trotting alongside it, searching for crabs and squeaking to each other in high-pitched tones of excitement. Crabs and fish form a major portion of their diet, while snails and other molluscs (an animal with a soft body, no spine, and often covered with a shell) widen the buffet spread. You might even see them break hard shells with stones, a skill that this little mammal has mastered.
The small-clawed otter has been recorded in parts of Northeast India and in the Western Ghats. We have little idea of the overall population, but we know that their numbers are declining and that should worry us for more reasons than one, for our lives are, in an implicit way, intertwined: the small-clawed shows a clear preference for hill streams and headwaters of rivers — ecosystems with incredible, often unstudied, biodiversity. These habitats are of great hydrological value because their regulated flow ensures water security for humans and other species. In that sense, protecting them even if it means invoking the law is of substantial selfish benefit to us.
Here’s an impressive example: in the little village of Dabhil in south Maharashtra, a proposed dam that would have submerged rich Western Ghat forests was scuttled because the village, led by its redoubtable Sarpanch, Aba Gavas, took the case to court citing the dam as a threat to the small-clawed otter. The small-clawed otter is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which accords it the same status in protection as the tiger or the elephant.
And we need more people like Aba Gavas! The Western Ghats ecosystem is under severe and immediate threat from the usual suspects: mining (including sand mining in streams and rivers), dams and conversion of evergreen forests to rubber, pineapple and cashew. Riparian buffers, which are stretches of forest by the river, with unique biodiversity and an inherent ability to withstand flooding for months, offer tangible ecosystem services, including flood and erosion control. These are also used by the small-clawed otter as sites for their dens (called ‘holts’). Yet, they are being encroached upon and planted up with chemical- and water-intensive cash crops, when protecting them should provide us with clear rewards.
The water quality in the stream plays a critical role too and studies in the Brahmagiris are illustrative. On the south side of the hill range is Wayanad, a region with high population and intensive farming of banana and rice using chemical pesticides and fertilisers, while on the northern side is Kodagu with lower population density, less intensive farming and a better quality of riparian buffer. The result: higher densities of small-clawed otters are documented in Kodagu, while many streams in north Wayanad have long stretches that seem to be empty of the species. There are no recent tests on pesticide residues and water quality in these streams, but could pesticides be the cause? Is their bio-accumulation — the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides or other nasty chemicals — in prey such as crabs killing the small-clawed otter? We do not know for sure, but we can make an informed guess that this must be happening. If so, surely, the absence of this beautiful little mammal is a worrying sign for the people dependent on the river.
India’s small-clawed otters are not yet threatened by pet trade, and I hope I am not speaking too soon. Small-clawed otters are undeniably cute and can instantly impress a zoo visitor by playing with stones, juggling, turning, tapping and rolling them. This has led to a unique and serious problem: in the last few years, ‘otter cafes’ have sprung up in Japan offering baby small-clawed otters for up to $10,000. Otters are being taken from the wild in Indonesia, Thailand and other South East Asian countries in large numbers for this utterly reprehensible, ridiculous trade. Yet there is hope: on August 27, 2019, at the triennial conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the protection for the small-clawed otter was increased by ‘upgrading’ it to Appendix I from Appendix II, which means “no trade in any form”. We can only hope that this helps.
Let us, though, go back to our story. Your small-clawed otter pack is playing on the little sandbank by the stream and you watch these otters in silent delight, grateful for the privilege. An imperceptible movement as you shift position? One of them stands up and looks in your direction: she has seen you! And then, a few squeaks later, they are gone. You hear a few soft splashes and are left with the memories of a lifetime.
And, maybe, some fresh poop nearby.