These Smooth Coated Otters are closely related to the Giant Otters of South America and are Asia’s largest otters. They are highly social and are often seen in packs numbering upto 15. Being social animals, they are a delight to watch. They mostly feed on fish (more than 90% of their diet is fish) and that makes them quite unpopular among fishermen. Unfortunately poaching otters for their pelt continue to decimate both fisheries and otter populations across most Indian rivers. Otter pelts along with tiger pelts make their way across the borders, usually bound for markets in China. Interestingly, trained smooth-coated otters are used by fisherman to herd fish into nets. They are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list13. The population is threatened by loss of wetland habitats, poaching, and contamination of waterways by pesticides. Smooth-coated otters are protected in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and are listed as endangered.
As the dusk set in, the image of these frolicking otters in the fading light was deeply etched in memory.
Poets have described the scene more eloquently. For instance Seamus Heaney (perhaps the greatest Irish poet after WB Yeats), wrote a wonderful poem describing the beauty and grace of one of natures most under appreciated creatures, the otter.
When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.
I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.
I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.
Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.
My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,
Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.
And suddenly you're out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.
However, there are some who hold the view that the poem is not just about the otter. The otter reminded him of his wife swimming. Lonesome for her, he celebrated her grace, the grace of the otter, and the presence of grace in the world.
Try reading the poem with an image of a woman diving into a swimming pool in mind, instead of an otter. Does it work?!