Three otters peered at us distrustfully through the spiky breathing-roots of Keora trees on the muddy bank of Kotka khal. Our paddle-boat has just entered the narrow creek at the very break of dawn.
Thankfully, Corona has given us an unusually crowd-free, quiet morning in the Sundarban at this high tourist season. Hastily our boatman beached the boat as we sat stock-still with our cameras trained to snap at the rare instant. We knew we had but a twinkling of an eye to do our job; the wary otters would race to safety of the forest in a moment.
Moments passed, the three otters did not run for cover and continued to look over us, a veritable firing squad with long lenses. One edgy otter took a tentative step towards the forest but gave up when the other two did not follow his lead.
After an exchange of a few screams and yelps they slithered down to the edge of water next to our boat. The three enigmatic creatures of Sundarban simply chose to give us the nod to carry on with our business when they did theirs.
And their business happened to be an animated chase after the mudskippers clambering in the mud. The sheer abandon of the wallowing otters reminded me a few captivating lines from a poem of the great animal-lover of our time, Ted Hughes:
… … neither fish nor beast is the otter:
Four-legged yet water-gifted, to outfish fish;
With webbed feet and long ruddering tail
And a round head like an old tomcat.
With its endless rivers and marshes, Bengal was once a land of million otters. That abundance ended in a few decades when the British traders began exporting otter-skin to China in the 19th century. The pelts were sold cut-rate as it was easy for a hunter to spear the trusting otters on every riverbank.
By the time the poor animal learnt to hide from people the otter population had crashed bringing down the big-time international trade in wild skin and hide. With the ever-expanding human populace the otter has never managed to retrieve its own population nor relearn to trust a human being in this part of the world.
In our previous visits to the Sundarban we did see otters a few times; but never that close and for this long. We knew the otters of this forest were very watchful and extremely stealthy animals. Often the otters saw us well before we saw them and quickly disappeared by diving in water or dashing into the bush.
We had to be content to catch a glimpse of otters through binoculars and shoot them only with telephoto-lenses. The otters trusted us no more than they trusted the people descending on them with spears a century before; and in many cases we did not deserve any better.
I remember the Sundarban tour we took on explicitly to find otters some 25 years back. Renowned otter specialist Pat Foster-Turley came all the way from USA to study the Small-clawed Otter of Bangladesh. Our boat paddled up and down the Kotka khal a whole day in vain.
In desperation we disembarked to follow the little pug-marks when the tide went down. Dr. Patricia was thrilled to identify the trails left in the mud by the otters and ecstatic over a bit of otter-stool she found at the forest edge. But that was all we ever found; no otter showed up on our entire tour of Sundarban.
The Small-clawed Otter has been a rare animal of Bangladesh and considered vulnerable globally. We grew used to its rarity and did not expect an encounter with otter on every short visit to the Sundarban. But as luck would have it, our Covid-time tour was destined to be exceptional.
On our boat-ride the next morning we met with two groups of otter busy fishing in the Kotka khal. A baby otter managed to catch a catfish and settled down on the mud to devour it. Our boat was too close for the baby otter's comfort. The baby looked at us with palpable terror in her eyes. Her scared look certainly did not help our growing feeling of being a gang of marauding paparazzi.
Thankfully, we did not have to suffer the discomfiture too long. Soon the baby otter's look changed from one of fright to that of trust and confidence. With the catfish in hand she continued to look at us in amazement and with amity. The guilelessness and innocence of her two round eyes could probably melt the heart of a man with harpoon in hand.
We asked our boatman to paddle the boat away from the bank and let the baby otter relish her catfish in peace and quiet. We drifted off quietly questioning, is the baby otter learning to trust us and not be alarmed to be near us humans! If so, is that good for her future survival?
Our boatman told us that he comes across the otter families every time he paddles through the Kotka khal these days. He said that the otters have been growing more numerous and less troubled by tourists coming close to them. The question is - does that say something positive about the state of wildlife conservation in our part of Sundarban!