Last week I attempted to reveal the murderous trail that starts from the high Himalayas and through an ancient route, finds its way straight into your boudoir. This week’s fashion victim is nowhere near as exotic as the chiru nor its final avatar anything as glamourous as the shahtoosh. And yet, the silent extinction of a species is imminent and the blood once again would be on our hands.
Every now and then, articles appear in newspapers and magazines about the seizure of skins and bones of wild animals. Tiger and leopard skins, bones and organs, ivory, and rhino horns grab attention and headlines. These flagship species evoke strong reactions from the government, conservation groups, the media and the public at large. Task forces are set up, grants sanctioned, even governments toppled and candlelight vigils held, and I am glad that we care enough for these chosen few for us to be able to hang on to whatever numbers that now remain in our protected forests.
But the unfortunate devil in the details is the fact that almost every news item mentioning a seizure, almost as an aside, also mentions the capture of otter pelts, perhaps far more in number than any of the other pelts and skins but no one, not even the article itself, seems to notice.
Otters lack the magnificence of the great beasts that lay slain alongside them and so they hardly ever seem to get noticed. There have never been any significant researches about otters in this country and we don’t even know how many we once had and how few now remain. What we do know that there was once a time when they were a common sight along our rivers and streams, and today we would be hard pressed to find a family group in even the protected national parks.
I found very little information about the poaching of otters in the public domain and so I went to an old friend who works with WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) you might have met earlier, Khaled Pasha. When I met him and shared my concerns about the poaching of otters in India, he drummed his fingers on the table, smiled a sad smile and said “Otters have been killed to the brink of extermination in this country. Theirs has been a silent extinction.”
This, incidentally, isn’t the first such extinction of our modern, environmentally aware and concerned times. Vultures (Peninsular India is home to three species of vultures – the slender billed, long billed and Oriental white-backed), once a common sight from trains along the countryside and even in the big cities in parks and woodlands have suffered a mass extinction with nearly 97 per cent to 99.9 per cent of the population dying out due to a veterinary drug diclofenac, used for treating cattle. This drug was a known toxin for scavengers like vultures and was banned in most countries. But the Indian administration refused to wake up to this truth. Efforts are on to breed vultures in captivity and then release them in the wild and this method might actually bring the great birds back to our skies. The successful resurgence of the California Condor through a captive breeding programme is a case in point.
The vulture in India was an accidental victim of administrative oversight and lethargy but the otter is being clubbed , speared and shot to death for its pelt in huge numbers across the country and no one seems to have noticed. Khaled is one of a notable few who have researched the matter and written an indicative paper on the plight of these delightful little creatures.
There three species of river otters found in this country – smooth-coated, small-clawed and the Eurasian otter. These were once so numerous that in the Sunderbans, on both sides of the border, fishermen would train pairs of otters to fish for them. Fishermen would tie them to their boats and then cast their nets. The otters would then drive the fish into the net and thus earn their keep. This relatively harmonious relationship is still alive in the Sunderbans but everywhere else, otters have nearly been battered into submission.
About ten years ago, I would see otters often along the banks of the Ramganga, fishing, squealing and having an otter of a time. But those days are long gone. Otters never really enjoyed the attention and protection that the press and the government reserved for flagship species like the tiger or the elephant. As a consequence, poachers hunt otters with impunity all along our rivers. The flesh is eaten, and the pelt (and the oil) is smuggled through Nepal into countries which have a market. Tibet is a big market for otter skin lined jackets and sleeves. Poaching isn’t the otter’s only problem either. Our rivers are over fished and starvation along some banks is an obvious possibility. And then of course there’s the pollution in our dying rivers.
Sadly, there has been any research about otter numbers in this country so there’s no way of establishing the extent of the ecological loss. As per Khaled’s estimations, otter numbers surviving outside national parks would be negligible and even within the park their numbers would have been decimated. If the otter is not to go the way of the vulture or even over the edge, it is imperative that a task-force is set up that will work on four fronts – a) conduct a census across the nation to establish baseline numbers for all three species; b) protecting otters has to become a specific priority for concerned agencies; c) spread awareness through media campaigns to try and reach out to target groups so that there’s a reduction in demand for otter pelts; and d) rehabilitate otter poachers, hopefully within the eco-tourism set up, to reduce incentives and provide alternatives to communities involved with poaching.
Otters are a resilient species and have bounced back from the brink in many parts of Europe. Given half a chance, they might do so here as well. All we need to do is remind the government and concerned agencies that our conscience and our rivers need the otters as much as the otters need them.