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First otter sighting in Nepal’s Chitwan park in two decades raises questions

Representative image of smooth-coated otters.

Representative image of smooth-coated otters. Image by Andrea Schieber via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • A wildlife photographer snapped images of a smooth-coated otter in the Rapti River in Chitwan National Park, where the species hadn’t been recorded in more than two decades.
  • The species is one of the three otter species believed to live in Nepal, all of which are threatened by habitat loss and river pollution caused by hydropower development, sand mining and agricultural runoff.
  • Researchers have called for funding to install camera traps in the Rapti to monitor the presence of otters there.

KATHMANDU — On the afternoon of Sept. 10, wildlife photographer Milan Tamang was passing by a stretch of the Rapti River in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park when he noticed something move behind the tall white grass that had bloomed in the wake of the monsoon.

Taking a closer look, he saw a mongoose-like animal. He wasn’t carrying his camera at the time, so he used his phone to take photos and videos. “I was especially curious after it began to swim. A friend of mine had told me that he might have seen an otter in the area,” Tamang told Mongabay.

He later showed the images to experts in Chitwan and Kathmandu, who unanimously agreed it was a smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), a species that hadn’t been seen in the Rapti in more than two decades. The discovery has now prompted questions about the status of the animal in the national park, conservationists say.

“As far as I can remember, we found otters in the Rapti back in 1998 when we were studying them using camera traps,” says Paras Mani Acharya, a former professor at Tribhuvan University and veteran otter researcher in the country.

The smooth-coated otter Milan Tamang spotted in Rapti River in Chitwan National Park.
The smooth-coated otter Milan Tamang spotted in Rapti River in Chitwan National Park. Image by Milan Tamang.

Nepal is thought to be home to three otter species: the smooth-coated otter, the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), and the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea). While the Eurasian otter is distributed in mountain streams, rivers and lakes, the smooth-coated otter is believed to be present in the major rivers of Nepal: the Narayani, Koshi, Karnali and Mahakali. The small-clawed otter hasn’t been documented in the country since 1839. The latter two species are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, while the Eurasian otter is considered near-threatened.

Otters are usually found in groups called parties, said researcher Sanjan Thapa from the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation. Thapa, one of the experts who positively identified the animal in Tamang’s photos as a smooth-coated otter, said they’re not typically known to roam solitarily. Why this individual was spotted alone, he said, is a question only further research can answer. Tamang suggested this could be due to the poor state of health of the river.

The IUCN, the global conservation authority, says the species’ natural habitats are being destroyed due to infrastructure development such as the construction of large-scale hydropower plants and reclamation of wetlands for settlements and agriculture. It also cites threats from agricultural runoff polluting rivers, endangering not just the otter populations but also the fish they feed on. These problems persist in various forms across the range of the smooth-coated otter, from Iraq in the west to Indonesia in the east.

Bed Kumar Khadka, a conservationist who worked in Chitwan for the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation, said the disappearance of otters from the Rapti River and the sighting of just a single individual suggests that disturbances such as sand mining and overfishing in the river continue to affect the species.

“We can easily spot smooth-coated otters in Bardiya National Park, where the Karnali River is still relatively pristine,” he added.

Conservationists say disturbances such as sand mining and overfishing in the river continue to affect the species. Video by Milan Tamang.

Nepal has invested heavily in hydropower over the past few decades, with the aim of exporting electricity to neighboring countries such as India, Bangladesh and even China. Hydropower developers have frequently violated requirements for how much water to release from their dams during the dry season to help sustain biodiversity downstream. Similarly, sand mining has become a lucrative business, with the government failing to regulate and monitor the industry. Waste from the mining process is dumped into rivers, turning the water turbid.

Despite the multitude of challenges otters face in Nepal, none of the three species was granted protected status under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act when it came out in 1973. Since then, however, the Eurasian otter and smooth-coated otter have gained protection under a 2002 amendment to the Aquatic Life Protection Act of 1961.

Another question that the sighting of the smooth-coated otter in Chitwan raises is why conservation agencies aren’t investing more resources on otter research in the park, said conservationist Rama Mishra. Her team recorded the species in another protected area, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, in 2021, more than two decades after they were last seen there.

“We need to install camera traps [in Chitwan] right away and observe the individual’s movement,” Mishra added.

Nepal’s wildlife department and conservation NGOs have often been accused of prioritizing the conservation of the country’s more charismatic species, such as tigers and rhinos, with the bulk for their funding going to these animals. Smaller, less prominent species such as otters are never a priority, Mishra said.

Some conservationists say they believe the otters never disappeared entirely from the Chitwan stretch of the Rapti.

“We can’t say that they are not there, just because we haven’t looked for them properly,” Acharya said. “The last time we did a camera trap survey was back in 1998. So many years have passed, but we haven’t looked for them again.”

Banner image: Representative image of smooth-coated otters. Image by Andrea Schieber via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @arj272.

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