Wild Otters with Katrine: Month 1

I am passionate about the environment and the species within it, especially those requiring research in order to maintain and sustain the population. Gaining experience in this area is essential for job seeking in the future. Therefore, my placement year has led me to a company called Wild Otters. They specialise in otter research, which is then used to form plans and policies regarding conservation issues in India. Wild Otters was founded in September 2014, with the aim of securing the future of otters. The organisation is based in Goa, with new projects taking place in Maharashtra and Karnataka. They play an essential role in facilitating otter conservation in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Through research, they have been able to collect data on the distribution and habitat preference of otters, alongside the threats they face providing clarity on their conservation needs. Potential otter habitat overlaps a considerable amount with fishing villages, therefore diet analysis’ are conducted to provide an insight on whether the species’ consume commercially important fish. Ongoing projects include den usage by smooth-coated otters, allowing us to understand the use of mangroves alongside humans. Little is known about Asian small-clawed otters in the wild, their project studying behaviour and adaptations is the first kind of research regarding this topic. There are also ongoing programs educating the younger generations, these often take place at the schools.           

There are thirteen species of otter in the world, three are found in India, and two are in Goa. These are Smooth-coated Otter (Lutra perspicillata) and Small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). Smooth-coated otters are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List as a result of population decline due to exploitation and habitat loss. They are typically found on lowlands and floodplains. An increase in human population has led to an increase in reliance on natural resources, causing the prey base for otters to be inadequate. Foraging grounds are generally mangroves, peat swamp forests and large lakes and rivers. Small-clawed otters are also classified as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List, due to similar factors. This highlights the impact of habitat loss across the ecosystem. The population is thought to have declined by over 30% in the past 30 years. As a research person within the company, I will learn data collection methods, data entry, camera trapping, GPS, mapping, data analyses and methods of presenting data. Alongside this my role includes: assisting with workshops, assisting research associates, improve the field base, develop merchandise and assist with social media. My first three weeks here will consist of training, ensuring that I am confident in my role. I have been provided with a checklist that will allow me to tick off each feature when I feel comfortable.

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Entrance to the field base.

My eighteen-hour journey to Goa began at Heathrow, with a layover at Mumbai. India is a fascinating country filled with vibrant colours. Arriving in the final month of the monsoon season means the vegetation is at its fullest, flourishing across Goa. The monsoon season is characterised by heavy rainfall, which can be problematic when working in the field. There is a high diversity of flora, coupled with a high diversity of fauna. The field base is located on Chorao Island, which is situated along the Mandovi River. Within Goa, there are 17 islands, and Chorao Island is the biggest located only 5 kilometres away from Panaji, the state capital. The ecosystem here is unique, housing the majority of mangrove species within Goa. Chorao Island is typically accessed by ferry, there is the possibility to drive, but the journey is considerably longer. White-tailed sea eagles are among some of the species located when taking the ferry. When entering the field base you are engulfed by plants. The biodiversity surrounding it makes it the ideal setting for conservation work to take place.

When I first arrived, I took part in a workshop named ’Investigating Biodiversity’; this is a three-day workshop for short stay volunteers, but by taking part it allowed me to visit some of the main sites where research is conducted. It also enabled me to familiarise myself with the area, and the equipment used in the field. The first site was a grassland ecosystem, with a small pond located within it. By identifying benthic macro-invertebrates, we can assess the ponds sensitivity to pollution and gain an understanding of the pond’s health. Other activities that took place during the workshop included creating transects, using various lights to attract insects and herpetofauna surveys. Khazan lands are anthropogenic agro-ecological and economic systems which appear to be architectured by the first Neolithic coastal settlers. The Khazans indicate socio-ecological compartmentalisation between estuarine fishing communities and the upland agro-pastoralist. These unique practices are culturally significant and sustain otter populations. By speaking to a local fisherman, a different perspective is gained leading to a deeper understanding.

I also spent time visiting camera trap sites, learning how to check the footage to see if any otter activity has occurred. Whilst looking at camera traps, it is also important to ensure the settings are correct, for example, the exposure may be too high, trippings must also be made note of. Camera traps capture wildlife in their natural environment, with minimal harm and invasion on the environment. When the memory card has been collected from the camera trap, the data needs inputting into a table. From this you can calculate how often otters are recorded.

In June, Wild Otters began a research project named ‘Ensuring Otter Survival’, I will assist them in collecting data. The aim is to map otter presence on a satellite map to see how otter habitat has changed over recent years. Data has been collected during previous years and will be compared to present day data. There is a total of 17 grids being analysed in the study, 14 are on Chorao Island whilst 3 are off it. Otter presence will be recorded through camera traps and field surveys. There are factors impacting where camera traps are left, for example, last year four of the company’s camera traps were stolen, so these areas are avoided. Surveys are used to increase the accuracy of electronic data collected and record otter activity. Defecating areas (DA) are the most commonly documented otter activity. A scale is used to record how recent the activity was, 1 (1-48 hours), 2 (2-7 days) and 3 (7+ days).  The colour of the faeces indicates how old it is, alongside the potency of the smell. The whiter the colour, the older it is.  Spraint (S) is also recorded using the same scale, defecating areas are regularly used by many otters, whereas spraint is a one-off occurrence. When either of these is recorded, a point of entry must be found, this is often a slope for the otter to climb up. Here further evidence of activity could be found such as prints, sightings must also be recorded.

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Although the photo is out of focus, it shows one of the otters spotted.

During my second day working on the survey we found spraint that was recency 1, this meant otters had been active in the area during the past 24 hours. We then spotted two otters in the water half way through the survey, it was truly an amazing moment. When watching the otters we were crouched down, they thought they were bigger than us so came right up to the river bed to get a closer look. It was wonderful to see them in the wild and hear the different noises they were making. When they realised we were much bigger they swam away, and we watched them swim around the river for a further two minutes before disappearing.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my first month here, and look forward to seeing what future months bring. Being here has allowed me to see the various aspects of conservation, and the steps to successful action plans.

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