Otters on Mt. Kailash
This animal has never been a priority species. So, is the otter doomed, asks ANIRUDDHA MOOKERJEE.
How many are there left? ... There are no accurate population estimates.
AT the base of the holiest Hindu mountain in the world, Kailash, where the legend says, Shiva and Parvati live, lies an abominably dirty pilgrim town called Darchen. About 40 kilometres from Mansarovar, this is the point where the faithful begin their parikrama to cleanse their souls.
All around is a cold desert landscape pockmarked by beer, soft drink cans and bottles. A twinkling stream, flooded with multicoloured plastic bags, divides the tourist /pilgrim part of the village from the shanty settlement, which, is a huge souvenir market for fake Tibetan antiques, food and alcohol. Sheep meat hangs in hunks. Large packs of black matted mastiffs prowl the streets for scraps, occasionally breaking into fights of heart-stopping ferocity. Interspersed at street corners are faded, open-air billiards tables where Tibetan tribesmen, dressed in exotic headgear, play pool.
It was in such surreal surroundings that I touched my first otter skin, possibly a smooth coated one (Lutra perspicillata), far outside its range, in a market that sold among others, Tibetan fox, lynx and snow leopard skins.
The skins were soft, well-cured, neat and uniformly trimmed. They were being sold each for 350 Chinese Yuan (about Rs. 2,100 ). We sat down on the rugs in the tent and animatedly bargained, trying to find out where these came from. "Maybe, India. Maybe, Nepal, " the man was incredulous, "Who cares where it came from. You are not marrying your daughter to it ?"
At the back of the skins was a small and neat signature in Tibetan script, which took me back to Siliguri in West Bengal, where a few years ago a large cache of otter skins was seized and found to bear very similar signatures. And then in Ghaziabad, where there was the largest seizure of leopard and tiger skins and other body parts. Similar signatures. It was as if someone was choosing the best out of a large heap at his disposal.
"Over the last five years 2,108 otter pelts have been seized. The enforcement agencies have not really been looking for them, but these have been seized during raids for tiger and leopard skins," points out Ashok Kumar, trustee and head of the Wild Enforcement programme of the Wildlife Trust of India. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can easily put the number of otter skins at 10 times this figure as many consignments must be slipping though undetected."
However, Ashok's iceberg estimates of smaller mammals, especially carnivores, which are at the top of their small niche eco-systems, are widely spread, nocturnal and elusive, may not be very accurate as total population estimates are non-existent. There is no attempt at collecting timeline information. Unless you are consciously monitoring such species over time, they will just slip you by, till one day you suddenly realise that none or very few remain. The otter exemplifies this.
India is home to three species of otters: the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the smooth-coated otter (Lutra perspicillata) and the small-clawed otter (Amblonyx cinerous). Just 50 years ago, the smooth coated otter, also referred to as the smooth Indian otter, was widespread in the country while both Eurasian and the small clawed otter (earlier called the clawless otter) were absent from central India, but found in broad bands in the Himalayas and parts of south. "Today, these elegant creatures are confined only to protected areas and zoos. If there are any unknown pockets outside, they are unlikely to survive. More importantly, our field information is sketchy," says Dr. S.A. Hussein of the Wildlife Institute of India, who is among a handful of people who have studied otters in India.
Estimates revealed by him are quite shocking. Out of the 578 protected areas in the country, approximately, 400 can support otters. Only 88 do. Four out of the six current Ramsar sites have otters, but out of the 15 proposed sites only one has otters. Out of the 35 wetlands of national importance designated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, only two have otters.
What happened to otters was quite simple. Found in rivers, lakes and other wetlands, they competed with human beings for fish, their main diet, and lost. Pollution poisoned their food and habitat. Lakes and wetlands were drained for agriculture. In fact the trade of otter skins has been going on for hundreds of years in South East Asia. According to a wildlife trade survey done in Thailand, an otter skin can be sold for $90-$100 to leather factories and considered the best leather to make jackets. It is also believed that otter fat was good for rheumatism, and dried otter penis can fetch upto $50 per inch in Mandalay, and in Myitkyina in the Kachin state. A researcher from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Bangalore, V. Meena, found nomadic tribal herb collectors from Haryana trapping otters in the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu to sell the oil and skin and of course, eat the flesh, while they were at it.
To make matters worse, the otter was never a priority species. In the Pan-Asian Otter Workshop, held in Delhi in March 2002, which had experts from all over Asia and Europe in attendance, not a single protected area manager turned up to discuss the issue. So is the otter doomed? Perhaps not.
"India has 27,403 wetlands greater than 56 hectares in size, many of which are excellent habitat for the otter. However, few of these sites have documented status of otters or related ecological information. Our only hope is in integrating otter conservation with wildlife and wetland conservation," says Hussain. The new initiative at this workshop aimed at projecting the otter as the Ambassador of Wetlands and thereby attract interest and, therefore, funds to save this species. Let us hope it works.
The writer is a director of the Wildlife Trust of India. The views expressed are his own.
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