I like travelling with a purpose and while still completing my MSc in Environmental Management, I’m always keen to learn more about environmental research and conservation. Few can resist the enigmatic charm of otters and so I was excited about the chance to get up close to this cutest of creatures, while exploring a different side of Goa and taking part in a research project which will play an important role in securing a future for this species in an ever-changing world.
Chorao was originally called Choddnnem, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for a pendant necklace. Wrapped in the blue ribbons of the Mandovi River as it gently winds its way to the Arabian Sea, this island is definitelyashining emerald oftranquillity. The Goa that time forgot, untainted by the bright lights of the coast and the parties for which Goa is famous worldwide. A lush oasis, humming with life, dripping with vines and saturated green, broken only by the garish pinks and oranges of Goan houses and the bright flashes of birds, from crimson sunbirds to the spectacular sunshine colours of the blackheaded oriole. Brahminy kites forever circle overhead, the extraordinary great Indianhornbills glide across the lanes andstorks soar along the river banks.
The Wild Otters base sits on the edge of the jungle on top of a hill; perfect peace with only the orchestra of crickets, frogs and cicadas with a melody of birdsong to break the silence.
At least until you meet the team!
With a flurry of excitement and smiling faces I was introduced to the ‘otter spotters’, my mentors and friends for the next 3 weeks! The team are from all over India and abroad, a mixture of personalities and skillsets, united by their passion for conservation and fun… and otters of course! Not forgetting the dogs, the ever-smiling Rey and the overgrown puppy Ladakh always keen to be part of the action! I was instantly immersed in a world of data and camera-trap pictures as I became part of the most comprehensive study in India of these shy mammals.
Every day began with a new adventure, walking the trails along river banks which comprise the different survey sectors covering the whole island, seeing a side of Chorao usually reserved for fishermen and farmers. Starting the GPS, we made our way down grassy pathways, surrounded by fluttering butterflies, buzzing dragonflies and flocks of weaverbirds, on the constant lookout for signs of otters. The first time I came across otter scat, it was the smell that first caught my attention! Some say it smells like jasmine tea, but to me a mixture of fish and well, poop, would definitely put me off my drink! During my three weeks I became adept at spotting these little gifts left by the otters, as well as determining how recent they were, and finding other tell-tale signs, such as pugmarks and grooming siteswhile recording their location to build up a picture of each group’s movements around the island.
With every walk I became more knowledgeable about this island and its inhabitants – from peacocks and curlews, to the Khazan fishing andfarming system unique to Goa and with which the fate of Chorao’s smooth coated otter families is so intimately entwined.
I was under no illusions as to the luck required to see otters in the wild, but with each trek the possibility seemed to grow… Until, one seemingly inauspicious day serendipity was in my favour. We found a recency-two otter scat at the beginning of the trail, followed by a recency-one which confirmed we were hot on their webbed little heels! Next came a flattened area of grass where some large animal appeared to have rolled around –feeling like detectives we proceeded crossing our fingers, until, suddenly, there they were!
The river widened into a beautiful aquatic body and two little faces were swimming towards us. We froze and watched transfixed, then slowly ducked down in the long grass in the hope that they hadn’t seen us – but the otters had, of course, already spotted the otter spotters! Hardly daring to breath, we watched as they paddled towards us. At the water’s edge they stopped, assessed us and, obviously deciding they could take us on, stood upright and began squeaking and chattering at us for entering their territory! A tirade of cuteness as we fumbled with our cameras trying to capture the moment. The pair then swam away, happy they had won the argument, and played around in the water for a while before swimming off downstream. After much excitement we marked the point on the GPS and marked a very satisfactory "Sighting" on the data sheet.
It was an exciting time to visit Wild Otters as so many new opportunities are being developed and plans coming into fruition. We spent many happy afternoons painting what will become the Wild Otter’s information centre with its backdrop of mangroves, beside the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. One highlight of my stay with Wild Otters was conducting a pond survey as part of the Island Exploration package; waist deep in the pond with sieve, jar and magnifying glass in hand, discovering wriggling nematodes, frogs and insect larvae. In the mangroves we found charming fiddler crabs and adorable mud skippers along with the blasted mosquitoes and I learned so much about the composition and function of this vital habitat.
My free time was spent discovering the island, slipping into the relaxing pace of island life, admiring the many churches, temples and banyan trees while trying unsuccessfully to find a snake! Chorao must be seen from both the land and the water, so I took a boat trip around the island to meet the elusive crocodiles along with countless water birds, from cormorants to kingfishers. Evenings flew by laughing and playing games with the team, watching movies and sampling the delights of Indian cuisine.
After almost one month with the otter spotters I felt very sad to leave this island paradise but happy to have played a part in this project and hopeful that opportunities like this one will secure a better future for Chorao’s wild otters and conservation in general. The world needs more people and places like this.
( Angela was with Wild Otters for about a month during the period July - Aug, 2018 )