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Otters: Dressed to Kill

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/09/29; Spetember 29, 2005.]

The Times of India

NEW DELHI: They were everywhere. In upscale shops in old Lhasa, on the streets of Linxia in China's Gansu province and on the bodies of young men and women attending horse festivals in Tibet.

But there's one image - a young man wearing a traditional Tibetan dress embellished with six otter heads - that haunts Belinda Wright. "I was aware that along with tiger and leopard skins, the otter pelt too is much in demand. But I was shocked by the magnitude of the trade," says the executive-director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

Wright was part of a recent four-week investigation in China, conducted jointly by WPSI and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) primarily to find out the skin trade of the big cats. But the operation also showed that the semi-aquatic mammal is in more danger than ever before.

Unlike the tiger and leopard, whose poaching caused a national uproar, the otter, known as 'Udbilao' or 'Pani ka Kutta' in parts of north India, is nobody's child. An endangered and highly protected species under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the cute otter is regarded as the ambassador of the wetland. But for conservationists and wildlife officials alike, they are the children of a lesser god. "There is no programme to protect them at the moment," says R P S Katwal, additional director general, department of wildlife.

The WPSI-EIA investigation shows why this attitude needs to change. In China's Linxia town alone, Wright and company counted 1,833 otter skins openly for sale; all used to decorate the traditional Tibetan costume, chuba. Estimatedly at least 50% of them are from India. One Tibetan trader told WPSI-EIA undercover investigators that the best otter skins are from India and Pakistan.

That's not all. A documentary by Syed Fayaz, And Then There Were None..., shows that otters have vanished from Kashmir's Wular Lake area too. It is a similar story in much of Uttaranchal. Due to poaching, otters in India have been reduced to a few hundred and in isolated pockets. "They are rarely seen outside protected areas," says scientist S A Hussain, who has been working on otters since 1987. These areas are Periyar tiger reserve, Corbett tiger reserve, Dudhwa tiger reserve, Kaziranga national park, National Chambal sanctuary and coastal areas such as Bhitarkanika and Coringa wildlife sanctuary.

A network of traders and poachers are behind the mess. Otter pelts have have been seized from regions as apart as Kerala and West Bengal. During most tiger and leopard hide seizures, otter skins are also found. Poachers' modus operandi varies from place to place. "In Kashmir, the traders pay off nomads and migrant labourers who hunt down the hapless otters with the help of trained hounds," says Fayaz. Elsewhere, deadly leg-hold traps, also used to ensnare large carnivores like tiger, are used.

Water-proof otter skin is used to make fur coats in temperate regions. They are also used for outer lining of coats.

Otter pelts are often smuggled out in fake gasoline tanks. In China, Wright saw thousands wearing clothes embellished with otter felts at different horse festivals. At upscale Bharkor area in old Lhasa alone, the animal rights activists counted 305 otter skin chubas for sale.

"Wearing otter skin products has become a widespread practice in Tibet in the past few years. It is fashion as well as status symbol," says Wright.

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