The Tungabhadra Otter Conservation Reserve was set up earlier this year, making Karnataka the first state in the country to provide protection to the river otter—a highly threatened species. While this government initiative on a 34-km stretch of habitat along the Tungabhadra River is a much-needed shot in the arm for saving the river otter, there are many others who have been involved in conserving these feisty, adorable aquatic mammals. For the past six years, Gopakumar Menon—who began volunteering towards nature and conservation 20 years ago thanks to his scientist friend Suresh Varma who was researching elephants—has been directing all his energies towards saving the creature.
Recalling how happy he was when he saw otters for the first time at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary as they frolicked in the river with boundless energy, the 52-year-old IIM graduate says, “I began to take serious interest in them, when news about a gang poaching otters and large mammals started making rounds in 2010.” The Nityata Foundation, founded by Menon, has been instrumental in completely stopping dynamite fishing for a three-km stretch in the Cauvery ecosystem where otters are known to inhabit. Right now, Nityata is working on an otter conservation project in Coorg.
Of the three otter species found in India, the smooth-coated one lives in the Western Ghats, the Asian small-clawed otter in the southern part of the Western Ghats and in Assam’s Kaziranga Tiger Reserve and the third one, the Eurasian otter, is seen in the Himalayan foothills. “It’s much easy to spot the smooth-coated variety as they are active in the daytime, unlike the small-clawed ones that are crepuscular—active only during dawn and dusk,” says Menon. Of the 13 species worldwide, only the Eurasian otter is doing ok. In the UK, it occupies an iconic status— what the tiger is to India, the otter is to the UK. “In the Chambal region in the north, otters have been completely wiped out, though they are making a comeback in Goa,” says Menon.
A grant by Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in 2012 saw Menon and two of his friends, beginning from the source, rafting their way across the Cauvery to study the ecosystem. “We found that while poaching was no longer an issue, unsustainable methods of fishing and pollution were the biggest threats to the river otters,” says Menon. That was when Menon started the Nityata Foundation in 2012 to protect otters, which later took the form of Nityata River Otter Conservancy.
Nityata, a team of seven, including Menon, has since then taken up the cause of river otters putting in place a number of measures for its conservation. They keep on working with other conservationists from time to time. “We screened a film propagating the dangers of dynamite fishing with warnings of police action against culprits. Pollutants such as copper sulphate and bleaching powder find their way into the rivers. We have led campaigns against pollution educating stakeholders about the dangers, asking them as to why they wanted to poison their own drinking water,” says the conservationist.
The fisherfolk too find the otter a nuisance as it steals the fish from their catch and is known to damage their nets. “It is an intractable problem. The otter is a very intelligent creature and hence difficult to contain. But we tell fishermen that they must take pride in the fact that the otter which is a protected species is to be found in their backyard,” he says. But why should the otter’s welfare be of particular interest to us? “Otters are apex predators in the river along with dolphins and crocodiles.
A flourishing otter population indicates a healthy river ecosystem and by indirect deduction our wellbeing
. They are the signposts in the river that all is well,” summarises Menon.