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‘Otterly Elusive’: Examining the Impact of Human Activities and Interactions on Otters in Shared Landscapes

Campaign by Centre for Wildlife Studies

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Otters are carnivorous, semi-aquatic mammals found in rivers, lakes, ponds and other wetlands across India. They can be distinguished by their elongated bodies, webbed feet, tapering tails, brownish-black coats, and short bursts of ‘squeaks’ let out for communication. As top predators of freshwater ecosystems, otters are key indicators of a healthy environment. Due to their shyness and rarity, otters can be quite elusive; if you spot one, count yourself lucky! 

India is home to three different species i.e. Asian small-clawed (Aonyx cinereus), smooth-coated (Lutrogale perspicillata) and Eurasian (Lutra lutra) otters. In India’s biodiverse Western Ghats, all three are known to co-exist. They thrive in freshwater habitats that contain dense vegetation and a plentiful supply of fish, crabs, and other prey. Interestingly, they are also sometimes spotted near areas of high human activity. People have, on occasion, even seen otters in the city of Bengaluru. 

There is a severe shortage of ecological data on otters in the Indian subcontinent. Not much is known about their population numbers, range sizes, and adaptation to human-dominated areas. Scattered observations indicate that all three Indian species are facing critical population declines. Along with poaching for fur, pollution, a rising pet trade, and depleting fish stocks, otters are threatened by habitat loss and degradation due to the expansion of agriculture, human settlements, and infrastructure. The IUCN has declared small-clawed otters and smooth-coated otters Vulnerable and Eurasian otters Near-threatened. In the absence of monitoring and conservation intervention, otters could go locally extinct from many wetlands.

The long-term persistence of otters outside protected areas in India depends on coexistence with humans. For our project, we plan to collect baseline data on otter occurrence in a region with numerous human settlements and high forest cover where at least two species are known to occur. We will use ecological data and questionnaire surveys to understand how human activities affect otters, and how people and otters interact with each other when they overlap. We will also study how different otter species coexist with each other.

Our project will contribute to baseline data on otter occurrence in India, which is essential for the long-term monitoring of populations and prevention of local extinctions. The study will also help us understand the effect of various human factors on otters over large spatial scales. This is especially important in India, where otters are frequently seen living close to humans in agricultural areas, towns, and cities. Such research is key for designing mitigation measures and prioritizing habitats for otter conservation. Additionally, understanding the nature of human-otter interactions is the first step to ensuring both can sustainably coexist. As a whole, our research is essential for the persistence of otters outside protected areas in India, where rivers, lakes and forests are directly influenced by human activities.

Centre for Wildlife Studies

Centre for Wildlife Studies

Beneficiary Charity

Sumit Arora

Sumit Arora


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