Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited).
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Lalitha Krishnan: Hello, you’re listening to episode #10 of Heart of Conservation, your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishna bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world.
Ok, so today I’m taking you to an island in Goa where I went looking for the smooth-coated otter, Did you know that three out of 13 otter species are found in India?
Check them out at wildlotters.com. So what did I do there? Scat analysis for one. It isn’t as bad as it sounds but seriously only when I started disassembling scat components and saw all that fish netting did it hit me for real. Our behaviour directly impacts wildlife.
Otters are kept as pets. Can you imagine? They are a huge part of the illegal wildlife trade. I found out this and more at Wild Otters an otter-research based organisation, tucked away in a corner of Chorao island in Goa. Part of the fun was getting there on a ferry.
So what else did I do there? Between several surveys, cataloguing camera trap data, early morning bird watching and late night video editing I bonded with a bunch of like-minded folks. This podcast is a by-product of conversations I had with a few interns, volunteers, and staff especially Ecologist & Director, Dr. Katrina Fernandez, and Director and Chief of Communications, Kshitij Garg.
Katrina Fernandes: Wild otters was started as a sole proprietorship. The aim was always to create a sustainable business model for conservation in the sense, trying to…rather than depending on funding and all the time writing grants, this, that and the other —sort of just trying to generate some sort of income to keep the place floating. That was the idea. Subsequently, we also realised that is not even possible. In terms that you can’t sell research. You can’t monetise research. You can’t make money out of pure research. You can do things that kind of help in other ways which is the internships and volunteers programmes, the workshops and the training programmes. So we do a bunch of those things. We get students from all over the world who do their placement years and their internships. We are also working with schools. We are working with one particular school called The Learning Centre which is into experiential learning. So everything is more tangible, more tactile, more outdoors and stuff like that. We are also working with The Owl House, with neurologically disabled kids. We do things with them like building insect hotels, also again tangible because we are trying to get them to be outdoors, tactile, using motor skills and stuff like that.
Kshitij Garg: Hi, my name is Kshitij Garg. I’m the Director and Head of Communications here at WildOtters. I essentially came in to look after some marketing and activities around which we would make this place sustainable. We are still working towards that. This is a rather challenging field I would say. It’s not the usual run-of-the-mill business model or run-of-the-mill profession. It is rather specialised. And I don’t come from a zoology, biology background. I studied physics in college, then did a bunch of things pertaining to management consulting, marketing, tried my luck at physics again, then did a bit of journalism on the side.
Katrina Fernandes: The main thing we do here is research. At the moment we have a bunch of projects running. Primarily we are trying to figure out how the smooth-coated otter is adapting to and sustaining in a human-dominated, human-modified landscape.
Also, Chorao is in the middle of a river; it’s still estuary – all mangrove and brackish water, not fresh water. We are also trying to see how those adaptations have happened over time. We’ve always thought they require fresh water sources and we are trying to figure out where that line can be drawn as well. A lot of their habitat requirements in a pristine environment are way-way different from what it is here. They are making dens on top of concrete retaining walls and all sorts of modifications you know, and adaptations to those sort of modifications which are quite interesting. So trying to understand all of that.
We do a lot of camera trapping to get behavioral data as well. There is a lot of deficit in terms of information for the species based on whatever historical data has been collected. We try to address those gaps. We don’t know much about their reproductive cycles and things like that. For instance, historically they have always been seen to have babies after the monsoon. But in 2017, we recorded a litter in May. That is completely out of character in terms of previous research done. So we’re wondering if that’s got to do with the productivity of the place or of course mangroves have a high productivity rate in sea species compared to freshwater species. There’s always fish, there’s always something going on. So essentially that provides more stability to a species such as the smooth coated otter.
Kshitij Garg: So one thing I am very closely involved with right now is…racking my brain over is how we can develop things that are interesting to different kinds of communities – this could be schools, colleges, universities, local communities, corporates. So, we are trying to see if there’s a way…of course, you speak of it to anybody…people get extremely excited. “Hey, you’re doing something that is fascinating, so out of the ordinary” But to build an engagement with them–to build an institutional level of engagement – isn’t straightforward. And, overall, through the history of Wild Otters, we have engaged with the public primarily through education. We run workshops, we run internship programmes and volunteering programmes, small field visits. So programmes can vary from four hours to four months. But, through most of this, the core content of all of this tends to be education. And though education is important… I mean…it isn’t the core of what we do. We run research projects; we try to study animals, their behaviours, threats to them, fill in data gaps… So we work very much within the scientific community to address some of these interesting issues essentially. I’m also particularly interested in seeing if citizen science can be a part of what we do. Is there a way to connect the community and get some interesting results out of data collection. These days everyone has a smartphone. What is the next best thing we can do? How can we get everyone together…can they tell us about their sightings, can they tell us about other interesting things they might have observed? And is there a way of everyone feeling some sense of fulfillment at the end of such activities?
Katherine Bradshaw: So hello, I’m Katherine. I’m from the UK, Lincolnshire specifically. I was originally here on my university placement year. I study wildlife conservation at the University of Kent. Having spent so much time here and have gained so much knowledge on the otter population, and the species here in Goa, I decided to extend my stay here and use camera trapping across the island to observe otter behaviour in this human-dominated landscape. So originally I was looking at comparing low human activity to high human activity. But with the island having fisherman all over it, I decided that the whole island had high human activity. So, I’m camera trapping across it and then focusing on otter behaviour looking specifically at _____ behaviour which is typically when they are alert, on edge. So if there’s a threat nearby they stand up on their hind legs, look around and observe what is going on. So, I’m looking at behaviour like that and also grooming and defecation and just focusing on whether there’s a difference across the island. For my personal project, I’m checking camera traps twice a week-three to four days. This means I’m not losing out on too much footage if the camera trap does suffer from a problem.
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a fact that otter pups are born blind. But swimming lessons?
Katherine: So swimming lessons for otter pups typically come after maybe one to two months. They will primarily be based in their denning sites which they dig into the bunds located here on the island. Once the otters have been in their dens for a long enough time, like one to two months, then they’ll take them out for swimming lessons. So they’ll start taking the pups by the throat, taking them out into the water, getting them used to the environment and bringing them back. Then you can slowly watch them begin to become proper otters.
Lalitha Krishnan: Katherine, what are otter dens made of?
Katherine Bradshaw: So the dens here on the island are typically dug into the bunds which are the manmade body separating the waterbody. Typically, they’re made of earth, sand, and soil and they’re dug out just to separate the fishing pools between each one. So these are really easy for the otters to dig into. They can just use their front legs, dig out and make a nice little den with various burrows into it. They can also use various vegetation, like grass to cover it which will protect them from various threats.
Lalitha Krishnan: So we know that the smooth-coated otters have adapted to the brackish waters of these mangrove forests. How significant are the mangroves and what’s the relationship of the otter to its habitat?
Katherine Bradshaw: So mangrove ecosystems have a variety of different factors that they bring to the environment. They provide coastal protection, a habitat to a variety of species including otters and this, in turn, creates a whole ecosystem. Mangroves are definitely essential. So you can see on the island how the mangrove ecosystem keeps growing out. You can see the seeds and the pods as you walk along, falling into the water which is extending the mangrove which will provide further benefits.
Otters are a keystone species which means they are basically essential for the environment and being an apex predator they do serve an essential role. So by them being present in an ecosystem, it’s an indicator of the ecosystem being healthy. So therefore if you have otters, then yeah, it means you have a healthy ecosystem. And through the food chain which I’m sure you’re all aware of, through that, going down each one, otters can mean fish and fish can mean various other things. So the cycle continues and continues. So if you remove a component of that cycle, that cycle will not function in the same way. So if the otters were not here then, the ecosystem would be completely different from what we have right now.
Lalitha Krishnan: Katrina, talking about community, how have they adapted to your presence here on the island? What do they think of the work you’re doing here and how are you getting them to cooperate and help you conserve the otters and their habitat?
Katrina Fernandes: It’s a very indirect approach at the moment. We’ve been here now for essentially over a year…almost two years actually. I think, the fishing communities around–which is essentially the people who have direct contact with the otters–if there was to be conflict, it would be between the fishermen and the otters. Because they do eat a certain proportion of their catch. It is the fishermen’s livelihoods at the end of the day, we don’t have some large scale commercial operations going on here. It’s all about livelihoods, it’s going to feed people’s families and stuff like that. But we don’t push ourselves on them. They’ve seen us. They’ve seen us go about to collect the data, they know exactly who we are and they see different people coming from all over the world. And, that has somehow brought some sort of value to the island, to the fishing community… because it’s like OK, “Why are all these people so interested? There must be something here.” That’s the thought process that is sort of…I like to think, to believe that that’s why we are not seeing any direct conflict in terms of retaliatory killings or things like that. As I said, it’s a two-way street. We are all outsiders at the end of the day. You have to make very tiny footsteps into the community and let them trust you before you start imparting all this knowledge onto them.
Yeah, now you get fishermen who see us out there and they actually give us information. “Oh, the otters are not here right now; they’ve gone to that side…we saw them this morning. There were six of them.” So you know, now they are automatically communicating.
Lalitha Krishnan: They’re observing for themselves.
Katrina Fernandes: Exactly. They now know the movements. “They’re not here. They’ve not been here for weeks. Come back next month. They’ll come back.” Some of them even want to tell you why they think they’re not here. “ Oh, the fish are too young over here. They are waiting for them to get bigger.” Stuff like that. I believe in a sense if you want to get involved with the community you can’t just come into that community and try and change their minds. It’s a very slow process. For it to be a 100% workable, it needs to be very slow infiltration.
Lalitha Krishnan: Kshitij, looks like you’ll have your hands full. You’ll do incredible stuff but what next?
Kshitij Garg: ‘Experiential learning’ is a big sort of key phrase these days. One thing I would be very interested in knowing is that can we develop programmes wherein individuals don’t just come to educate themselves but are directly involved from wherever they are, in solving some wildlife-related issue. In some ways, they are actually involved in more than just seeing it on TV channels or news media about things that are happening related to wildlife. And the reason I say this is because a lot of people I meet or who write to me or write to us, want to be involved but sadly the avenues are somewhat limited. They have this sense in their heads that they have to come to a very pristine, wildlife sanctuary-type environment to even start looking at wildlife. That is in itself is so wrong because there’s such a serious dearth of even the most basic knowledge of research techniques that people don’t have. Using which, they could do a bunch of things in their own backyards and cities for that matter. We now have started to get people from across the world over here, essentially for long term internship programmes.
Shiri Lev: Hi Lalitha, My name is Sirilev, I’m from Israel. I came to India because I wanted to basically help otters live. A few months back, I went online to search my next step in life and naturally, it was going to be about animals and my favourite animal is (the) otter. So I went online and I found a lot of information about the otter pet trade that has been going on around here; around south-east Asia, especially in Japan and I started sending emails to whomsoever could shed some light on this subject. Eventually, I contacted Kshitij and Katrina from Wild Otters. I got a few of the studies that were done by Katrina and some of her colleagues. Reading them back home, I was crying the whole time. I was very upset about this. And I decided to come here and try and learn more about otters…to learn how they live.
Kshitij Garg: Even in India, for instance, people just didn’t know about otters. Still, most of them don’t know about otters. But there is this slow and steady pace at which this knowledge is expanding. And there are a ton of other such interesting species that people just don’t know about. We run a wide variety of workshops on mammalian studies for instance. Camera trapping, using a GPS, mapping techniques to invertebrate studies. We might teach them about butterfly trapping, moth analysis, pitfall trapping. We also run a couple of workshops on jungle survival. You might want to learn about building a raft or cooking your own food. Choosing what is edible or inedible berries or filtering water. There are a plethora of things that we do. Of course, we do a lot of custom programmes based on the requirements of the university or the organisation; it could vary between say ½ a day to as much as 10 days. We are also trying to work with a couple of local schools addressing waste management solutions over here and we are also trying to see if there are ways of expanding our reach to the community. We are working with a few more organisations on and off the island doing some programmes for them in terms of sensitising the individuals that visit them towards nature.
Lalitha Krishan: So when you do your surveys on the island, what exactly are you looking for?
Katherine Bradshaw: So when we survey the island we are looking for otter activity which is typically defecation areas and spraints. So defecation-areas are where otters repeatedly visit. They spraint there so that shows that they are active within the environment and we also look for pug marks, obviously denning sites. Marks, if they have come in and out of the water, because you can see how the way the tail has dragged. It’s typically defecation areas that we spot.
Lalitha Krishnan: Katrina, I believe we have a hybrid otter since the two species of otters, the smooth-coated otter has been breeding with the small-clawed otter. Can you tell us about that?
Katrina Fernandes: That’s not happened in India that we know of as yet but hybridisation has happened in Singapore. So the entire otter population in Singapore is hybrids between the smooth-coated and the small-clawed. So it’s a genetic mixture. And yes, they’re successfully continuing the population in that fashion.
Lalitha Krishnan: (to Shiri Lev): You’re taking on Otter trade. That’s very brave of you. But what’s your plan of action. How are you going to do this alone?
Shiri Lev: Well, I mean, I can’t do anything alone. No one can. We need people around us; we need to form friendships based on either basic interests or goals or you know, some kind of drive to try and help what’s going on around us on earth today. I figured I’ll get a college degree in university. Fine. Ok, It’s great to study. But to do stuff in life we need to learn first. So I figured volunteering was a great way to start. Just to go somewhere, to learn first hand what’s going on. From people who have dedicated their lives to that. And from that getting inspired and developing my ideas and try and help.
Lalitha Krishnan: There’s so much going on here with the otters, the research, the interns, the volunteers, the biodiversity, the community, tourists, feral dogs, garbage. There are no easy answers.
Katrina Fernandez: Even if you look at us, it’s very easy to monetise in terms of…Ok, I’ll just do a walk every morning and take six people and show them otters. But that’s contraindicative of what we’re trying to do in the first place. Because in one sentence we’re saying there is human pressure – humans are putting pressure on the habitat etc. etc…then you can’t take those numbers of people out every day causing more disturbance. That’s contradictory.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, knowingly taking them out.
Katrina Fernandes: It’s very easy to justify and say you do have to make that sacrifice to get money to actually work with the animal but we’re trying to somehow, figure out an alternative model to that which doesn’t involve taking people out there, showing them otters.
Kshitij Garg: Where we’ll go from here, I’m not exactly certain. We’re expanding into other species. We’ve already started some studies on civets and porcupines in the Mandovi ecosystem. And we are essentially now starting to look or are starting to look at the ecosystem more holistically. Most of our previous studies have focused more on otters where you do study parts of the ecosystem along with it. And I think that’s a good approach to take when you’re even looking at using all of this data …whether feeding into the local government or the forest department or anywhere where you want to make a policy level change. It’s good to look at the whole ecosystem more holistically. There’s also a thin line between being educational in a research place and then sort of venturing more into tourism space. We are consciously making an effort not to venture too much on the tourism side because that just takes away a lot of mind space and effort on our side. And that does not contribute as much to the end result as much as we would like to. We definitely hope to expand to more species, more projects, and definitely more field bases beginning with a few more spots in India. But all that is of course just wishful thinking for now and hopefully, it will happen in the future sometime.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK then, I hope you enjoyed this episode. I’m going to leave you with a new word in the usual tradition. It’s ‘spraint’. I’m going to let Katrine explain it to you as she explained it to me.
Katherine Bradshaw: So ‘spraint’ is otter poop and we mark this using a GPS device so this GPS device marks the exact point where this spraint is. And we can use this to create maps of otter activity and this allows us to see month to month where otter activity is and high activity and low activity and if they’re on the move.
Lalitha Krishnan: So bye guys, if you know somebody whose story should be told, do write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned. FYI Heart of Conservation Podcast is available on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud, Google podcast, Himalaya App, Android…so do tune in.
Birdsong by hillside residents
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