Wildlife With A Conscience

Four experts address pressing wildlife issues and advise travellers on how to be mindful whilst interacting with a region’s natural habitat.

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The smooth-coated otters of Chorão are highly elusive, like other members of the amphibious weasel family, says Atul Sinai Borker. Photo Courtesy: Atul Sinai Borker

Discover how to responsibly get up close to fascinating flora and fauna through word-of-mouth tips and takeaways from four wildlife experts—whose conservation and research efforts have involved the likes of wild otters, saltwater crocodiles, fishing cats, and sarus cranes—scattered across splendorous Indian wildlife sanctuaries. Atul Sinai Borker talks voluntourism on Goa’s Chorão Island, Tasneem Khan discusses field-based learning in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Tiasa Adhya provides an insight into wetland ecotourism, and K.S. Gopi Sundar advises on how to best confront greenwashing.

 

Atul Sinai Borker

Founder at Wild Otters

Flanked by the bank of the Mandovi in Goa, Chorão’s thriving mangrove ecosystem is best known as the home of Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. A former Portuguese settlement, the island’s landscape is marked by unique aqua-agro features known as khazans, which were devised to facilitate the equitable distribution of water as a resource.

Often seen drolly floating belly-up in its brackish water bodies, a fuzzy, playful semi-amphibious member of the weasel family, both adored and maligned in equal measure, is known to flourish here. It’s not uncommon, especially in recent years, to discover epithets such as ‘Goa’s best-kept secret’ or ‘otter island’ bestowed upon Chorão.

Wildlife With A Conscience

Conservationist Atul Sinai Borker is a founder at Wild Otters Research that conducts walks, internship programmes and research-oriented activities, the focus of most of which is the smooth-coated otter. Photo Courtesy: Atul Sinai Borker

“Such coverage is purely for eyeballs, and irrelevant in nature,” Atul Sinai Borker, conservation biologist, opines. “Divar Island has a much better otter habitat and numbers than Chorão. Chorão got a lot of attention because we had a field base there and we created a lot of programmes, made a lot of noise. Otters are so well-spread across Goa that it’s not fair to make a statement such as that.”

Wild Otters Research, the conservation organisation Borker started in 2018, operates off the island, conducting walks, internship programmes and research-oriented activities, the focus of most of which is the smooth-coated otter. Regardless of whether the wrong kind of interest would be detrimental to the otter population anywhere in the state, he asserts that sightings aren’t really a part of experiencing these animals in the wild.

“Otters are very elusive creatures and the usual wildlife tourism model, where sightings carry varying degrees of certainty, isn’t applicable here. Their habitats aren’t easily accessible. If you’re coming with a certain expectation, know that there’s hardly anything significant to see in the conventional sense… Voluntourism, which India is slowly warming up to, is a different proposition.”

Although Borker’s no longer a part of Wild Otters Research, the collective organises conservation-focussed activities such as bat crawls and mangrove trails. However, chasing any interaction with the otters entails spending long hours in the field, and investing a week in training: setting up and checking camera traps, getting angles right.

 

Also Read: How to Travel Better: Be Conscious of Wildlife

 

“Expect to be only locating otter droppings, initially. We’re very happy when we spot fresh otter poop—it is something that gets us as excited as most people would upon seeing a tiger. It’s important to spend time, a good 20-25 days, for the experience to be immersive, because short-term volunteers (under a week) aren’t of much help. Looking for otter signs is a very specialised skill… you require a week’s training before you can start to contribute. Otherwise you can just tag along and feel that you have contributed, but in reality you haven’t,” Borker, who graduated as an engineer, quips matter-of-factly.

Reports of feral dog attacks on the resident otters,a little while ago, suggested the presence of interspecies or even human-wildlife conflict by extension. But Borker feels that such instances are nothing new, only their documentation. What is, however, a concern, is a relatively new trend: that of building steep and straight concrete retaining wallsin the khazans.

“These walls have absolutely no consideration for wildlife. When they were built for the first time during Portuguese rule, they were constructed with mud and clay. But over time, they have not been maintained as they were supposed to. Today, the solution to that is concrete retaining walls, and they’re built very straight and steep, which is a hindrance for animals such as otters, who stay at the bank most of the time, where they rest, groom and make their dens. As a result, the habitat gets continually fragmented, even for other species such as crocodiles, for whom access to the bank is crucial. This is something that will actually reduce numbers—the reproduction will go down.”

Top Takeaway: If one really wants to make a difference with volunteering, set aside at least two weeks to immerse in habitats that shelter elusive species such as otters. Try to adopt a mindset that goes beyond sightings and places value in understanding behaviour patterns based on the evolving means of documentation and interaction with animals.

As told to Prannay Pathak

 

Read the full feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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