“Oh Yes! At last I get to go there!” That’s how I felt when I was given the opportunity to take part in the Otter Survey on River Kaveri. Excited and enthusiastic, I packed my gear and started off for Talkad, a place cosily resting in the lap of Mother Kaveri, at-least that’s what I felt, until I really got there. My excitement soon turned to sadness and pity for the river and its animals. Was this the place I was dreaming of?
Taking its birth as a small stream in the sacred Thala Kaveri, River Kaveri, flows through the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Meandering its way through the plains of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where eight tributaries a few of them from the neighbouring states of Kerala and Pondicherry join it, forming a basin of about 81,155 sq.kms before it sets its feet into the Bay of Bengal. Apart from being a major source of water for many cities including Mysore, Bangalore and Mandya, it also serves as a major habitat for various animals including two species of otters (Smooth-coated and the Small-clawed) and diverse species of fish, amphibians and other aquatic animals and more sadly it serves as drainage for industrial and household sewage and waste for cities and towns along its course.
I had been to Talkad in Karnataka, from the 22nd to the 24th of February 2014 to volunteer in a survey for Otters conducted by wildlife biologist Mr Nisarg Prakash in association with Nature Conservation Foundation. We had to row over the River Kaveri to assess the various anthropogenic stresses that the Otters and other aquatic fauna are facing. We had rowed for three days from Talkad to Medini, Medini to Sathegala and from Srirangapatna to Sangama, over 30 kms of River Kaveri.
No sooner that the survey started, we reached an island where we discovered three wire snares laid for capturing crocodiles or otters. This was the first sign of stress the humans were causing. Snares are usually put on rivers for two reasons; poaching for skin, and by fishermen to kill the crocodile or otter as they steal the fish from nets. Over the years, as skin trade has been rampant in various parts of India, the number of animals has come down drastically and poachers are shifting for one animal to another to fulfil the greed of humans. Fishermen tend to slay the otters and crocodiles for stealing their catch or when they are accidentally caught in their fishing nets. I had earlier come to know of this issue when I had visited one of the crocodile sanctuaries on River Godavari.
As we made our way ahead, we found extensive Sand mining practices going on to satisfy the sand hungry concrete jungles like Bangalore and Mysore. We learnt from few workers on the river that they get paid a paltry sum of Rs. 200 for each sand-filled 2 metre diameter circular raft. This, forces them to fill in at-least 4-5 rafts of sand every day. The bank, the islands and the river bed were all not spared. Sand mining was so intense that huge machinery like excavators, cranes and bulldozers were used. It was seen over a 9 km stretch of the river along both the banks and the most disturbing fact was that it was being done legally. Sand mining is one of the leading causes of damage and alternations to the riparian habitats, bed degradation, bed coarsening, bank disruption and lowering of water table. Channel stability in a given river reach occurs from a delicate balance among river ﬂow, channel form, influx of sediment from the watershed and loss of sediment to downstream reaches. River channels transport sediments and water from headwaters to its mouth.
The sediments are built up and maintained by erosion and deposition of sediments during river ﬂows (Hecde, 1986; Whiting, 1998). Sand mining from a relatively confined area triggers erosion of bed and banks, which in turn, increases sediment delivery to the site of original sediment removal.Bed degradation is caused by pit excavation and bar skimming, the two general types of sand mining. It occurs through two primary means: head cutting and “hungry” water effects. Excavation on mining pits in the active channel causes the formation of a ‘nick point’ due to lowering of the bed. This causes increased flow at these points and bed erosion sets in. then the erosion spreads upstream by head cutting (Hartfield 1993; Kondolf 1997). Of the two forms of bed degradation, head cutting is more recognizable in the ﬁeld and represents greater risk to aquatic resources.
As we paddled along, we reached a check dam built for diverting water into micro-irrigation canals. This causes disturbances in the flow of the river and the habitats downstream from the check dam. The construction of check dams is for two reasons; the pooling of water for trapping the alluvial deposits from flowing ahead to help in sand mining, and secondly to help in building micro-irrigation canals for the fields.
Check dams cause trapping of water and sediments upstream thus causing increase in vegetation and lateral displacement of the stream. Downstream, they cause increased erosion as there is increased transport capacity of the water. The channel gets narrower. Damming river flow leads to both a loss of native species and an increase in exotic species which are more likely to become established in degraded habitats. The migratory fish are stopped from travelling upstream. All this leads to isolation of species, thus increasing the susceptibility of disease.
Following the check dam we went through a part of the river where we had seen a lot of “Dynamite Fishing”. The fishermen actually bomb the river with dynamite to stun and kill fish, which are later collected. This kills the fish which is major diet for the Otters. Sometimes the Otters also can be killed if they are close to the blast. Many fish do not die immediately following the blast. They go into a state of shock and the after effects of the blast take their toll after a day or two. This fish then begins to decompose, thus posing threats to the health of other fish and animals which live by feeding on fish.
Apart from the Sand Mining, Check Dams and Dynamite Fishing, the other anthropogenic stresses the Otters were facing are Fishing, Cattle grazing on islands, Fire set on islands by the fishermen to drive out Otters, setting pumps from the river for irrigating fields, mini-hydel projects, and
Even as the stressors continued, we were lucky enough to see Otter signs likes like foot prints, spraint (droppings), dens and tail drag marks. These signs were, although not many, encouraging to see that the animals were trying their best to survive or at-least looking for ways to survive.
As we were almost done with our survey with signs of otters but no actual sighting we were given a grand farewell by a pack of five Smooth-coated Otters swimming from one of the islands to the bank of the river. It was an encouraging sight for all of us to see the otters swim across the river ever so elegantly, raising their heads in between to have a breath and look around the surface of the water.
Efforts that can be made to prevent the stressors to Otters and the river:
- The Sand mining practices that are being practiced need to be monitored. Most times, the length of river where the sand is being mined and the amount of sand being taken are more than the approved limit. Practices like usage of heavy machinery and extensive use of bar skimming can lead to severe damage to the bank and its vegetation and also affect the riverbed and riparian habitat. These can be done in a lesser intensity. Instead of concentrating the whole sand mining in one particular place, multiple smaller places can be identified which do not have much of risks and sand mining can be done there.
- The dynamite used by fishermen is illegally obtained from nearby stone quarries. Stricter monitoring and auditing of the quantity of dynamite supplied and the amount of dynamite used in the quarries might help in reducing the supply of dynamite to the fishermen, thus preventing Dynamite fishing.
- Grazing and burning of reeds on islands can be prevented by stricter punishments and enforcement of laws that protect the river and its bio-diversity.
- Use of illegal fishing techniques like gill nets needs to be stopped and the offenders need to be prosecuted.
- Hunting of Otters for their pelt is a punishable offence as they are classified in the Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Stricter enforcement of the laws can protect the Otters from being killed.
The experience was an eye-opener for me, as being raised on the banks of River Godavari, I had seen the same stress we humans were causing to the river but never felt it would cause so much of loss to the riverine and riparian habitats. It has really helped me understand in detail about the threats the Otters and other aquatic animals are facing and encouraged me to work for their conservation in a more serious way and try helping them survive.
the more ‘otter it is, the more ‘otter otters likes it- Brian Jacques
Text and exclusive photos by Ashvij Putta