How much longer will Goa remain Otter Worthy?

Above: A fisherman on his traditional mango-wood canoe in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

Guest Blog by Atul Borker, with Salil Chaturvedi

My deep engagement with Goan rivers began almost half a decade ago, when I started researching otters in the state. In this short span of time, an otter’s life has seen its ups and downs, and I don’t mean the daily rise and fall of tides that are critical to wildlife adapted to the mangroves!

Though Goa is the smallest state of India, it is blessed with as many as nine rivers. A unique aspect of Goan rivers is that they are tidal as well as rain-fed. During the monsoon months (June-September), water is drained out of the watershed through the rivers and into the sea. At the same time, the rivers experience a daily tidal influx upto 40 kilometers inland. The salinity of the rivers varies sharply between the monsoon and non-monsoon seasons, and so does the physico-chemical quality of the water. Needless to say, the people and the wildlife along the banks are highly attuned to these seasonal (and diurnal) changes, and the shy and elusive otter is one such animal.

The hectic life of a Goan otter

Generally, people think that a river is wasteful unless it is humming with human activity. The rivers in Goa seem more crowded today than when I began my research. After a brief reprieve of four years between 2012-2016 during which, thanks to a Supreme Court order, iron ore mining in the state had come to a sudden halt, now the iron-ore barges are back, though not in the same numbers as at the peak of mining activity.

Sand mining boats are a common sight in several stretches of the rivers. Their motors resound through the mangroves from dawn to dusk for a better part of the year. The numbers of speedboats, tourist dhows and cruise boats are also on the rise. In some stretches there is a continuous movement of river traffic. This is expected to increase in the wake of the Central Government’s efforts to nationalize the rivers of Goa and bring them under the Inland Waterways Authority.

According to an article in the Indian Express, dated September 30, 2016, Shantaram Naik, Goa’s Congress Rajya Sabha MP ‘has strongly opposed the nationalization of six Goa rivers in Parliament saying that there is a “big conspiracy” to grab vast land lying on both sides of Mandovi, Zuari, Mapuca, Chapora and Sal rivers.’ He also said that Goa would ‘cease to have any control over the riverbeds and also the land on the banks, as may be specified by rules framed under the Nationalisation of Rivers Act.’

One thing is certain: if the proposed plans of nationalizing the rivers of Goa, and river dredging to allow coal transportation come to fruition they will increase the stress on wildlife in and around Goan rivers, and otters are going to take a hit.

Already vulnerable

Goa is home to two kinds of otters: Smooth-coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) and the Asian Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinereus). Both are classified as vulnerable (VU) by the IUCN Red List.

Asian Small-clawed otter pair in a rocky forest stream in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

The Asian Small-clawed Otter is found exclusively in fresh water. It prefers the shallow, rocky forest streams having a depth of 0.2 to 0.4 meters. In Goa, their families are found to be small, with less than five individuals per family. The majority of these otters are found within the protected areas of Goa in the Western Ghats region. The lowest altitude at which their presence has been recorded is 17 meters ASL (Above Sea Level).

A family of Smooth-coated otters resting along the Mandovi riverbank in Goa.(Photo: Atul Borker)

Smooth-coated Otters, on the other hand, are found in fresh as well as brackish water. Their populations are mostly found in the lower stretches of the rivers that lie outside protected areas. This makes them especially vulnerable to the increasing modification of rivers.  Large families of Smooth-coated otters—consisting of up to 15 individuals—have been recorded in the mangroves that line the rivers and backwaters. Fishermen also use these mangroves extensively to catch fish, crabs and prawns. This animal/human overlap underlines the importance of village communities in conservation efforts of wildlife around them.

Walled in! 

The biggest and the most immediate challenge for Smooth-coated otters is the construction of concrete retaining walls that are being built in an effort to re-strengthen traditional agricultural bunds.

A recently built concrete retaining wall, cutting through mangroves in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

The projects are overseen by the Department of Soil Conservation and Water Resources Department with no focus on ecosystem management. The high retaining walls of the bunds are being constructed using concrete, and rise abruptly, perpendicular to the water’s surface. This is most inconvenient to a Smooth-coated otter. Our research has revealed that otter families habitually cross over the traditional bunds (made of clay and soil) to access waters on the other side for foraging, particularly at night. The steep retaining walls make it impossible for otters to cross over, thus severely limiting their mobility and forage area. While it is true that otters are very adaptive and have the ability to adjust to minor changes, they can’t be expected to adapt to such drastic changes to their habitat.

A JCB involved in the construction of retaining walls on a bund in Goa. (Photo: Salil Chaturvedi)

The construction activity makes use of heavy earth machinery that causes significant damage to the riverbank vegetation. At times, over 60-year-old mangroves are either cut or die as a result of the concrete poured during construction. Moreover, the bund-strengthening projects take a few years to complete and can severely disrupt the food chain on the river bank, affecting crocodiles, bird populations, crustaceans, amphibians, and fish stock, while seriously fragmenting the otter habitat. In a place like Goa where a large number of people depend on fishing for their livelihood, the depletion of fish stock is a serious concern for the future of these fishing communities. Also, during the construction period, a fisherman’s access to many locations gets impeded, making it difficult to continue with the activity.

Clearly, more thought needs to be given to the design of river bunds so that they create minimum social and ecological attrition.

Iron ore transporting barges and sand mining boats share the river space in Mandovi River in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

A narrow window of opportunity

Goan rivers still provide a promising habitat for otters, one of the few areas in the world to do so. It might be a tough ask for a small state like Goa to be an active mining location, a coal hub, an attractive tourist destination and a beautiful state with rivers that support a healthy population of otters, all at the same time.

Sand mining boats offloading on a traditional khazan bund in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

Coal and mining will probably be viable for a decade, but livelihoods generated from sustainable tourism and fishing can last for a much longer period. We need to take a wise-use approach that brings many perspectives and stakeholders on the table. Unless we do that we are liable to fall short of our developmental aims.

Tourist boats on the Chapora river in Goa. (Photo: Atul Borker)

It is therefore imperative that ecological and social perspectives are included in developmental strategies through rigorous impact assessments. This is possible only when there is a strong collaboration between communities, engineers, ecological and social scientists and planners.

To me it seems that the otter population will be a litmus test for the ‘development’ of Goan rivers.

  • Atul Borker (atul@wildotters.com) is Founder Director of Wild Otters.

Continental Coordinator for South Asia of IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group

Species Coordinator for Lutrogale perspicillata of IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group 

  • Salil Chaturvedi is a writer with a keen interest in ecology.

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