Man vs Otter and other Kadalundi tales

You can’t really fault the otters or the fishermen for wanting the same thing – the fish - to survive. What we are seeing played out is one of the many human-animal conflicts in Kerala.

Published: 16th January 2023 06:42 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th January 2023 06:42 PM   |  A+A-


Otters are a fisherman’s nightmare in Kadalundi. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

Everyone likes a quick, easy meal.  Even if it comes at the cost of someone else’s hard work.

At the Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary in Kozhikode, Kerala, a family of otters are slinking through the waters, hoping to grab their catch for the day. Their target is a bamboo basket full of fish at the end of a row of wrought-iron nets. Unfortunately for the otters, there is a fisherman guarding the cage.

The otters are a nuisance to the fishermen, says Santhosh, the boatman who is ferrying us across the estuary and mangrove forest in a canoe. Otters, the top predators in a wetland ecosystem, can destroy expensive nets and make off with fish trapped after a hard night’s work.

You can’t really fault the otters or the fishermen for wanting the same thing – the fish - to survive. What we are seeing played out in front of us is one of the many human-animal conflicts causing distress across Kerala.

A cormorant dries its wings before flying high. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

The fisherman guarding his catch today is following the traditional method of fishing that has been practiced in these waters for generations: Bamboo Trap fishing. Fisher workers lay out nets that are 600-1000 meters between mudflats and mangroves in the estuary during the high tide. At the end of the net is a bamboo cage, locally known as thadavala, that traps the fish.

Once inside the basket, the fish cannot escape. Even during low tide, the cage is full of water, and the fish are still alive when the fishermen remove the nets, generally at daybreak.

The beauty in this form of fishing, says scientist Dr K M Aarif, who has studied the Kadalundi estuary since 2005, is its sustainability, and what it says about the interdependence among the many creatures that live here.

“After the fishermen remove the basket, the net is left in the waters for another hour. The wading birds and the aquatic birds of the area gather around at the corner of the nets. It’s common to see water birds feast on shrimps and baby fish that have been trapped on the sides of the nets. Since it’s mostly low tide then, it’s easy for the birds to wade through the water.”

The Common Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant to Kadalundi. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

Egrets, herons, cormorants, kingfishers, and kites rely on these nets to catch fish.

Even if baby fish, or undersized fish, have been trapped, the fishermen release them back into the water, allowing the fish to reach maturity and breed. “I once asked a fisherman why he did that. He said these fish aren’t going anywhere. They would grow up in a couple of months and come back to us. I saw that as the concept of taking what we need, and leaving the rest for the next generation,” says Dr Aarif.

Yet, the number of fish in the estuary is shrinking: From an average of 25 kg of fish caught per day in 2014, the catch has dropped to 3 kg in 2022.

The younger generation of fishing families in the region is moving away from bamboo trap fishing.  But those who have lived on this form of fishing for a lifetime find it hard to find work elsewhere.

Egrets scan the waters for fish. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

The biggest threat to bamboo trap fishing here, however, remains otters. Otters hunt in packs and with their sharp teeth, the bamboo basket is an easy target. They bite into the nets, causing a huge loss to the fishermen. The lifespan of a net is about ten years, but these attacks shorten it even further.

All our conservation policies, unfortunately, focus on animals and plants, and not on the human communities that have lived within this ecosystem for generations. The otter population needs to be controlled, says Dr Aarif. “Our wildlife and forest policies show no awareness of regional conservation. Our idea of conservation does not include human beings. When you talk of biodiversity, man is very much a part of that. It isn’t a balanced ecosystem if any one species thrives at the cost of others.”

This lack of sensitivity shows up in other conflicts, some not as visible as otters vs men.

The Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary is part of the Kadalundi–Vallikkunnu Community Reserve. The reserve is home to three complex habitats – mudflats, mangroves, and sand beaches. Any change in one habitat affects a million organisms from planktons to fish to migratory birds across the spectrum. The zeal to expand mangroves come at a cost to the many species of migratory birds that visit the mudflats from December to April. Waste from poultry farms has led to an increase in kites, and predatory birds that drive out the migrant birds.

Kadalundi is the wintering ground for many species of migratory birds. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

Birding at Kadalundi

The vagaries of the tide determine the way many species find food. For a tourist, the tide can decide how far into the estuary you can go.

We are there during the high tide. Which means we get to ride through the mangroves. But there are relatively fewer birds because the mudflats and sandbanks are covered with water and the birds have no place to rest.

Santosh, who has lived in the region all his life, can identify every call, every shade of bird, even before it comes into view. With his expert guidance, we get a good look at the resident water birds and the migrants who stop over in Kadalundi during their transit through the Central Asian Flyway, one of the important migratory routes for waterbirds.

A Pacific Golden Plover picks at a crab while its mate perches prettily on the mudflats. A Sandpiper meditates on one leg. Terns fly across the islets. A stunning Black Caped Kingfisher with purple-blue wings and a red bill is a fascinating flash of colour against the mangroves. Redshanks wade by and a Cormorant flies low over the water before stopping to dry her wings.

Santhosh teaches us to spot the differences between the many kinds of Egrets: “Look at the yellow on the feet, look at the colour of the beak.” Scientific names don’t matter as much as the joy of watching these gentle creatures sit quietly, waiting for the right time to strike prey. Closer to the mangroves, a flock of blue-tailed bee-eaters create a ruckus and a Brahminy Kiteroosts on a coconut palm.

A Black-Capped Kingfisher, usually found around mangroves and coastal regions, in Kadalundi. (Photo | Chetan Asher)

On our ride back, Santhosh exchanges a few words with his fisherman friend, who is keeping vigil, armed with a stick. A show of strength and some loud calls later, the otters disappear. The fisherman has won this round, and his catch is safe for now.

Sarita Ravindranath is a senior journalist.


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