Smooth-coated otter sighted in Vizag

Ranked as ‘vulnerable’ on IUCN Red List, the species’ spotting at Podugupalem Lake indicates a healthy ecosystem
A picture of a smooth-coated otter clicked by Vivek Mathala, an avid bird-watcher, at Podugupalem Lake in Visakhapatnam on April 1
A picture of a smooth-coated otter clicked by Vivek Mathala, an avid bird-watcher, at Podugupalem Lake in Visakhapatnam on April 1(Photo I Express)

VISAKHAPATNAM: A routine bird-watching session at Podugupalem Lake in Visakhapatnam district, 20 kms from the port city, led to the first recorded sighting of a smooth-coated otter. Vivek Mathala, a banker and avid birder, along with his friend, made the discovery on April 1 while observing birds at one of the region’s major birding hotspots.

“We were watching birds and clicking photographs when a number of egrets suddenly started making loud noises. Out of curiosity, we looked towards the shore of the lake and spotted an otter running from one end to the other and into the bushes. I immediately took pictures of it. I knew it was an otter but, did not realise it was a smooth-coated otter. Later, I posted the pictures in the Vizag Bird Watchers group. That is when we discovered that it was the first sighting of the species in Podugupalem and within the Visakhapatnam district. I was excited to capture the rare sighting on camera, but learning the significance of the sighting made it an even greater experience for me,” Vivek gleamed.

These otters are ranked as ‘vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List since 1996, as they are threatened by habitat loss, pollution of wetlands and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade.This sighting is significant as the nearest previous record of the species was also from Kondakarla Ava, a freshwater lake approximately 70 kilometres from Podugupalem Lake, in 2021 in Vizag (currently Anakapalle) district.

Providing insight into the sighting and smooth-coated otters, marine biologist and founder of the East Coast Conservation Team Sri Chakra Pranav said, “In the Kondakarla Ava area, there are tensions between otters and the local fishing community. Otters often consume fish from commercial fish farms, damaging traditional fishing traps and stealing fish. This has led to a conflict with fishermen, some of whom harbour resentment towards the otters and may attempt to harm them. As a result, otters have adapted to become entirely nocturnal to avoid interactions with humans.” Notably, East Coast Conservation Team was the first to spot these otters in Kondakarla Ava.

In 2021, when smooth-coated otters were first seen in Kondakarla Ava, Pranav and mammal expert Shekhar Kolipaka predicted the connectivity of local streams and water bodies, which suggested otters might move beyond the Ava, possibly interacting with populations in neighbouring districts. This recent sighting supports their prediction, highlighting the necessity of focused surveys on habitat connectivity and threats to otters for conservation planning.

“The presence of otters in waterways indicates a healthy ecosystem with abundant freshwater fish populations, as otters primarily consume large fish. Clean, unpolluted waters support thriving otter populations. Otters thus serve as indicators of good water quality, reflecting the overall health of the ecosystem,” said Pranav.

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