These youngsters toiled away in an Odisha village to save the endangered smooth-coated otters, just in time for World Otter Day

They have a diamond-shaped nose, an elongated body and their tail is flattened, this is how you would identify a smooth-coated otter, a species that these youngsters researched a lot on. Read on...
Smooth-coated otter | (Pic: Sudarshan Shaw)
Smooth-coated otter | (Pic: Sudarshan Shaw)

If you'd ever passed by Beladala, a small village in Odisha, just a year ago, you would have seen a very different relationship playing out between the villagers and the smooth-coated otters. The people wouldn't budge for the shy otters and go about their business even when they knew very well that they are encroaching upon the animal's favourite basking spot. Now, the humans are respectful of them in this small village and know they need to be left alone. All in time for World Otter Day which falls on May 26. How did this sea-change come to be?

On their way | (Pic: ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation)

It was the wish of Aurobindo Samal, Founder of ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation, an organisation working for wildlife, and his team to work for the smooth-coated otters. "There have been many studies conducted on their diversity and population. But I wanted to do something for their conservation," says the 24-year-old. With the right permissions from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, a Rs 1.35 lakh grant from the Wildlife Trust of India and accompanied by Amit Das, Kalinga Keshari Jena, Bandan Kumar Swain and Akash Ranjan Rath (Field Facilitator), they carried out six months of fieldwork starting August 2021. "It was in 2019 that Cyclone Fani made landfall not too far from the village and in the same year, the smooth-coated otter made it to the Vulnerable category on the IUCN Red List," shares Aurobindo.

Meeting with officials | (Pic: ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation)

Two months before the actual project began, Aurobindo and Co travelled to the village, chiefly to the area near the Nuanai River, to parley with the village's opinion leaders and set the groundwork. Then, they started the field study, finding pug marks, scat analysis and finding their favourite basking spots. "What gave rise to the human-animal conflict was that not only would the otters feed on the fish fishermen aspired to catch, they even tore their fishnets. So what we began to do was offer compensation for the nets destroyed and helped five of those fishermen's nets which were completely ravaged," says the youngster who founded the organisation in January 2018.  

Wall art | (Pic: ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation)

How did they do it? There was camera trapping, where they had to wait till 3 am with a camera underwater to capture this nocturnal creature, and anti-snare walks which went on for seven to eight hours in four different areas each time. "Without community support, no kind of conversation is possible. So we spent a lot of time building a rapport. So much so that they have been very supportive," he explains. They engaged four local artists to paint a few walls and conduct awareness sessions as well.

Spotted | (Pic: ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation)

"This project was shaped by addressing 360-degree capacity buildings with the promotion of co-existence which will be helpful for the species' conservation in particular areas for a long time," said Rudra P Mahapatra, Manager, Regional Facilitator, Wildlife Trust of India. "During this project, we had an opportunity to document the full range of otter diversity, human impact on these species and developed some practical approaches to prevent local extinctions and somehow tried to maintain genetic variations between these species," shared Akash Ranjan Rath, Former Honorary Wildlife Warden, Puri and Field Facilitator for the project. 

Book launch | (Pic: ECO - Earth Crusaders Organisation)

What's more, they even published a limited edition book titled Community-Based Conservation of Smooth-Coated Otter at Nuanai. "The work of all the team members has gone into writing it. Everything from the project has been documented in the book which was launched in March this year," informs Aurobindo.

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