Starting Sunday, Wild Otters Research, a Goa-based organisation focused on small mammals, is launching Project Lighthouse, roping in citizen scientists to collate information on otters.
Of the world’s 13 otter species, three are found in India: the Eurasian, the smooth-coated, and the small-clawed otter. The team has prepared a field-book with details on these species, ways to spot them, look for signs of their presence near a river—and the etiquette to be followed. Don’t disturb them, watch from afar and don’t disclose exact locations on public platforms, are among the instructions. For Katrina Fernandez, director, Wild Otters, is worried about poachers.
The problem is, “there is a huge deficit of information about otters in India. We have been scouring social media platforms to gain more information about their sightings, or any other information. And it’s through this process that we came up with the idea of crowd-sourcing the information,” says Fernandez.
To begin with, they are alerting birdwatching groups and groups of outdoor enthusiasts, like one of kayakers in Tamil Nadu.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species range map, Eurasian otters are found in the Himalayan range and in parts of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka; Asian small-clawed otters are found in the Western Ghats and around the Sunderbans in the east; and smooth-coated otters are present in all rivers other than those in the northernmost states. But these are broad areas. “The more specific the data gets, the more useful it gets to both study them and address conservation and conflict issues. It may also be used for urban policy changes,” says Fernandez.
Unlike big mammals, it’s difficult to get population estimates of otters. But based on the decline in habitats and sightings, Fernandez says it’s safe to assume populations have been shrinking. “For instance, there are records of Eurasian otters being found in the Himalayan foothills. But today, in Jammu, you don’t find otters any more,” she says.
Through its initiative, Wild Otters is hoping to understand range and distribution, as well as the way the mammals are dealing with threats such as dam construction, sand mining, aquaculture, overfishing of their food supply, and water pollution. The mammals are even hunted for their skin and the pet trade. “For instance, we heard a story recently that an otter pup in Gujarat was sold,” says Kshitij Garg, director and chief of communications, Wild Otters.
To check poaching, the Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters were elevated to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2019. The proposal, led by India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines, came after the otter pet trade and trade in body parts came to light.
So, how can you help? Individuals can send information via Signal or WhatsApp on a specific number. People will need to send the location pin, describe in detail what they saw or heard about, with photographs or videos. Information about past sightings can also be sent. “We will also hold video sessions once a month for participants to ask questions and clear doubts,” Garg explains.
The team will introduce the project through a live chat on its Instagram account on Sunday.
For more information, go to https://wildotters.com/projectlighthouse/