Spotting Three Species Of Otters In India

Otters are some of the most rarely seen mammals across India, and still face threats to their survival. Learn where to spot them in India
A group of Otters in Sunderbans
A group of Otters in SunderbansShutterstock

Otters are members of the Mustelidae mammalian family. They are social animals, showing fascinating and charismatic nature with eccentric and elusive habits, rarely seen by the masses owing to their nightcrawler tendencies. These crepuscular animals thrive in various habitats, ranging from marine to freshwater. Otters are aquatic mammals known for their playful behaviour and streamlined bodies adapted for life in the water. There are thirteen species worldwide, spread across all continents except Antarctica and Australia. In India, three species are found - the Smooth Coated otter, Asian Small Clawed otter and the Eurasian otter.

Smooth coated otters resting on a river bed
Smooth coated otters resting on a river bedShutterstock

Perils of extinction and conservation

Otters are facing dangers from poachers for their dense fur, considered the "diamond" of the animal fur market and as such, out of the three, The Smooth-coated otter and the Asian Small-clawed otter have already been classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with the Eurasian otter marked as "Near Threatened." Thankfully, awareness about the need to preserve these rarely seen mammals has been increasing, especially since 2019, when India's proposal to upgrade the protection of Smooth-coated and Small-clawed otters in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species on Wild Fauna and Flora) was accepted by the United Nations.

Places like The Tungabhadra Otter Reserve Sanctuary in Karnataka, India's first otter conservation reserve that has quickly become a haven for this mammal, are a step in the right direction. India's first dedicated otter reserve is a 34 km stretch earmarked for mammals along the river in Karnataka. The reserve is home to Smooth-coated otters and Asian Small-clawed otters. Environmental conservation organisation Wild Otters is also working on protecting these mammals and understanding their behaviour. This organisation is studying the movement patterns of otters in Goa and assessing habitats in the Western Ghats. 

Smooth Coated Otter

A smooth coated otter in Kabini forest
A smooth coated otter in Kabini forestJoydeep Mondal

Smooth-coated otters are the largest and heaviest among otters found in India, and their dimensions reach around 1.3 metres in length, weighing about 11 kgs. These mammals have smooth and short fur, are greyish-brown, have small eyes, ears, and flattened tails, and are found throughout India. They occupy a range of water bodies like rivers, lakes, estuaries and inundated rice fields, also residing in mangrove forests and semi-arid regions. Rocky areas near water bodies are their preferred sites for resting and making dens. The Smooth Coated otter is distributed in India in all the rivers south of the Himalayas. For example, River Ganga, Noachar, and West Bengal's banks are great for spotting this elusive creature.

Asian Small Clawed Otter

An asian small or short clawed otter in India
An asian small or short clawed otter in IndiaGarry Knight/Wikimedia Comons

The Asian Small-clawed otters hold the title of being the smallest otters globally. They have a length of approximately 0.95 meters and a weight ranging from 2 to 5 kilograms. These otters possess short claws and display dark brown fur with reddish hints. Distinct white patches around their throat, upper lip, and neck can be observed. Their natural habitat primarily encompasses the northeastern states of West Bengal, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura in India, as well as hilly regions such as Nilgiris, Palani, and Coorg in the southern part of the country. In the Western Ghats, the Asian Small-clawed otters are mainly found in hill streams. They exhibit versatile habitat preferences, dwelling in shrub lands, grasslands, coastal areas, wetlands, and mountain streams.  Kaziranga national park in Assam has a healthy population of these animals.

Eurasian Otter 

Eurasian otter
Eurasian otterSylvia Breslin/Flickr

Eurasian otters are slightly smaller than the larger Smooth-coated otters. They measure around 1.2 meters in length and weigh between 6 to 12 kilograms. Eurasian Otters, also known as European otters, possess distinct features such as broader heads and elongated snouts that culminate in a unique W-shaped nose. Their fur is predominantly dark brown, with the specific shade varying depending on their location. In India, Eurasian otters primarily inhabit the Himalayan foothills and the southern regions of the Western Ghats. These otters are particularly associated with mountain streams and cold hilly areas. Notably, the Himalayan otters exhibit a fascinating behaviour of migrating to lowlands during winter.

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