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The otters of Hampi have a new conservation reserve. But they also face a new threat

The otters are a highly adaptable species.   | Photo Credit: Kalyan Varma

Winter was setting in, the night was cold and I had trouble waking. I reached the river just as dawn broke over the boulder-strewn landscape. It was a mad tangle of hillocks with a smattering of rocks, big and small. Centuries’ old aqueducts wound around them as did new roads. Fields were splotches of bright green in a landscape of browns, reds and greys.

In the early morning light there seemed to be more rocks than water on the river’s course, like the aftermath of some tectonic upheaval, the moraine of a long-gone glacier.

Perched as I was on a large rock, I could see through my binoculars, ripples moving upstream: it could only be one thing — otters. In a little while, a dripping wet otter scampered over to the bank and after a brief inspection of its marking post, vanished back into the river. The previous day I had spotted an otter glide into the water, poke its head from under the water hyacinth and inspect the rushes growing on the islands, unperturbed by a coracle ferrying tourists not far away.

I was on the banks of the Tungabhadra river in Hampi and I had come here looking for otters. This was my first trip to the iconic valley of ruins, a Unesco World Heritage Site and popular backpacking destination. The rocks that had served as fortification for the Vijayanagara Empire now had people scaling them for recreation. The river that once sustained the ancient city was dammed and sucked away to feed distant fields.

Highly adaptable

But protected, quite accidentally, by virtue of the Unesco tag, the otters I had come to watch — the smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata), the largest of the otter species in Asia — were a fairly common sight here from what I gathered. Studies have shown that otters are a highly adaptable species, and here they were afforded greater protection than their counterparts in more vulnerable areas.

There is little known about the status of otter populations in the country, partly because most otter habitats are not part of the network of protected areas that receive much of the conservation attention. The smooth-coated otter is an animal of the plains. Most river basins in the plains face immense pressures, are severely exploited and modified. But we do know that they were once common across much of India south of the Himalayas, and that the demand for their pelt drove them to local extinction across many river basins.

The otters of Hampi have a new conservation reserve. But they also face a new threat

Today, otters are up against resource extraction from the rivers they inhabit: they are increasingly sharing space with sand miners, their habitat is threatened by dams, and being fish eaters, they are viewed by fisherfolk as direct competitors where the two overlap. But here in Hampi, despite a riverscape altered by the Tungabhadra dam, otters are often sighted as both fishing and sand mining are less of a threat.

The recently declared Tungabhadra Otter Conservation Reserve along 34 km of the river, is a bonus. While a ‘conservation reserve’ differs vastly from national parks and sanctuaries in terms of protection, it nevertheless is recognition of the fact that this stretch of river is of high conservation value and home to a population of smooth-coated otters and other river-dependent fauna such as endangered softshell turtles and mugger crocodiles.

That morning I was with Ramesh, a resident of Anegundi on the bank opposite Hampi. Ramesh knows every bend and pool in the river and with good reason. He used to fish in its waters, and once, more than a decade ago, he had lobbed a stick of dynamite to kill fish. Mis-timing it, he ended up losing an arm. But due to the efforts of a conservation-minded neighbour, he is now a steward for the river and keeps a close watch on the resident otters along with other wildlife.

Changing ecosystem

Despite being notified as a conservation reserve, dynamite fishing though is still prevalent in parts of the reserve. Dynamite fishing kills indiscriminately, and destroys livelihoods. It sometimes maims the person engaging in it, but the effects on the river are horrendous. While poaching and dynamite fishing seriously threaten the species there is a new addition that is sweeping the river: the colonisation of water hyacinth, one of the world’s most invasive plants.

With multiple droughts in the last decade, the water level in the Tungabhadra dam was scraping the bottom, Ramesh told me, and as canals on both banks siphoned water away to irrigate fields, the river downstream was nearly bone dry. There were large stretches of dry riverbed interspersed with stagnant pools. And this had provided a perfect environment for the spread of water hyacinth. Originally native to the Amazon basin, water hyacinth has proliferated across much of the reserve with an obstinate mat, changing the very nature of a dynamic freshwater ecosystem.

The otters of Hampi have a new conservation reserve. But they also face a new threat

We struggled to make our way through this thick tangled mesh of water hyacinth to an island that Ramesh said had signs of otter activity. Fisherfolk who depended on the river had now lost access to large stretches due to water hyacinth, he said. Worse, their fishing was now restricted to small patches of clear water that otters frequented too. The result was predictable — a sudden spurt in interactions with otters. Fishermen were not happy about sharing space with otters as nets can get damaged and some catch is lost to them.

Lost vegetation

Otters have fished alongside fishermen for aeons. But the tolerance that had been built over generations of living alongside would start to shred the moment we start treating our rivers as taps to be turned on and off, and not as living, dynamic systems. What’s worse, decades of land mismanagement along the river, leaching of agrochemicals, and the artificially induced floods of 1992 have all but erased native riverside vegetation. One can walk a long distance here without seeing a single tree on the river banks. Most were hacked down, and the rest, the flood took. Native riverside trees prevent erosion during strong monsoonal spates. They thus protect fields, apart from providing fodder for cattle and cover for wildlife.

Water hyacinth grows in standing water and can only be effectively removed by a periodic release of water from the dam to flush it down. The mat breaks up with an increase in flow. But clearing water hyacinth in the drier months will only exacerbate the problem in the conservation reserve.

As the water recedes and the riverbed is exposed, water hyacinth is used as much-needed cover for a host of species. Softshell turtles, smooth-coated otters and mugger crocodiles all use this matrix of hyacinth-rock-sand-water in these vulnerable months. It also prevents access to large parts of the river that would have otherwise been disturbed by movement of people.

Setting up the Tungabhadra Otter Conservation Reserve was a good step towards the protection of an animal that once used to be ubiquitous in the plains; but it is only a small step among the many that need to be taken.

The conservation groups and the forest department instrumental in setting up this reserve have to ensure they address the concerns of local communities along the river while also ensuring the Tungabhadra Board is roped into the management of the reserve. Periodic release of water into the river is critical to keeping the water hyacinth in check and also to replenish shrinking pools in the drier months.

I have made several trips to Hampi after that first one in the November of 2015, and while I noticed water hyacinth spread across the river unchallenged, I watched also the resilient otters, seemingly unhindered by the drastic change of riverscape.

The wildlife biologist thinks a shaded spot along the river is infinitely more rewarding than life in a metro.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 12:15:11 AM |

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