Goa! One of the world’s most popular destination for its beautiful beaches that attract tourists in massive numbers. For all the images of the sea, sand and sunsets, one easily forgets the other incredible side of Goa. Goa sits beautifully in the middle of the Western Ghats with numerous creeks and rivers flowing out. These rivers, creeks and backwaters create stunning mangrove forests as they get closer to the sea. Due to this interaction of the sea with these rivers, these waters are sites of high biodiversity and are home to the iconic Smooth-coated Otters.
The Smooth-coated Otter is the most common among the three species of otters found in India. They are active, playful and efficient hunters of the river systems. These otters are gregarious and extremely social. They live in families and hunt in groups. Their diet largely consists of fish and hence they are found in rivers where fishes are in abundance. These mangrove forests and river channels provide an excellent habitat for these otters. Although excellent swimmers, the otters also spend quite a bit of time on land. They live in dens by the river banks and have specific sites called spraint sites where they mark their territories by a secretion from their anal gland. When not hunting, they are often seen rolling up in sand to dry themselves and resting on banks. Being gregarious they are often able to chase away threats and other predators from their territories.
Otters are also very intelligent, which comes out in their hunting techniques, but smartness also allows them to improvise. In Goa, fisher folks have developed a system of bunds to create tanks where the water level is regulated through small slues gates and fishes are caught with the movement of tides. This system of tanks and bunds is called the Khazaan system and has been in Goa for a long time. In these Khazaans, otters have learned to catch fish from nets. They also find the Khazaans to be ideal habitat due to the presence of abundant fish for hunting in the Khazaans themselves. Here in Khazaans, they share the space with other predators such as the Mugger Crocodiles. However, the regular loss of fishes to the otters, the fisherfolk of Goa have developed a disliking to these creatures.
Living alongside humans has its pros and cons for the otters. Smooth-coated Otters over time have beautifully adapted to many of the modified river systems where they thrive today. But this also pushes them into regular interactions with human activities and structures. Often many get caught in fishing nets which they damage during the struggle to be free, ultimately facing retaliation from fishermen. Otters also conflicts with the feral dogs as they come close to human habitations.
While these issues exist, the adaptable nature of otters gives great hope for their survival. Scientists are increasingly studying the species and activists, especially based in Goa, are educating the general public about them. With this, the situation is likely to improve, both for the people and otters.
The Habitats Trust and Trippintoe productions present the story of the Smooth-coated Otters and the people who strive to protect them through an episode in their docuseries “Wild You Were Sleeping”. Hoping to elicit empathy and awareness among the general public, the series tries to bring people closer to the nature around them. Catch the episode on the Smooth-coated Otters here.