Conservationist Malhar Indulkar is working to conserve otters and their habitats in the Tillari region of Maharashtra in the northern Western Ghats.As part of his awareness programmes, an ‘otter festival’ was held at a school in the region and children were kept engaged through various activities including a play. They were also given comics on otters.Fisherfolk were also educated on the perils of non-traditional fishing techniques and some plot owners were encouraged to forgo fishing of spawning fish in their plots to ensure a greater population of fish in the river.A conservation reserve has been recently declared in Tillari as tigers and other wildlife use the area and more have been proposed to ensure good connectivity of wildlife in the Western Ghats. During his childhood, Malhar Indulkar was fascinated by rivers and he felt a strong connection with riverine ecosystems. He had seen people, including his parents, voice their concerns about the pollution of rivers in the Konkan area of Maharashtra, where Indulkar grew up. After briefly working with otters in Karnataka, since 2018 the 27-year-old conservationist has devoted his efforts to conserve otters in the Tillari region of Maharashtra, part of the northern Western Ghats. Tillari is the name of both a river and the valley through which the Tillari river flows, says Indulkar, who is part of Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Mud on Boots Project. Tillari connects the Radhanagri and Amboli wildlife corridor in the north to the Radhanagri sanctuary and Bhimgad and Mhadei wildlife sanctuary in the south, which are in Karnataka and Goa respectively, Indulkar explains. “So Tillari valley is on the junction of three states: Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.” The Tillari landscape in the Western Ghats. Photo by Malhar Indulkar, map from Datawrapper. Tillari valley has good patches of reserve forest interspersed with rubber, pineapple and cashew nut plantations. One special thing about this landscape, emphasises Indulkar, is that in the Western Ghats, Tillari valley or Terekhol, a river north of Tillari, are the northernmost extent of many wildlife species such as king cobras and Asian small-clawed otters. Of the three species of otters found in India, the small-clawed otter, which is the smallest among all otter species in the world and receives the highest level of protection under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, is mainly found in the Western Ghats. But it is difficult to sight it as it is mostly nocturnal (active only at night). “In three years, I have sighted small-clawed otters just twice,” says Indulkar. The landscape of Tillari is heavily-modified, says Indulkar. Over the years, four dams have come up in the region and “so the stretches of habitats of small-clawed otters have become fragmented.” Other species too have been spotted in Tillari. “You get slender loris here but up north you don’t really find them.” Elephants too frequent the area. In 2018, Indulkar and his colleague reported the presence of a primeval Myristica swamp in the region—the northernmost distribution of these fragmented relic forests, which are a treasure trove of species. The swamps also harbour crabs—one of the main components of the diet of small-clawed otters. Asian small-clawed otters in the Tillari River. Photo by Malhar Indulkar. Otter festival and comics Outreach programs are a large part of Indulkar’s work and he has been educating children in schools on the importance of otters in riverine ecosystems. His team even held an ‘otter festival’ at a school in a town called Sateli bhedshi in Dodamarg taluka and children from other nearby schools were also invited. Children were engaged through poster exhibitions, presentations by wildlife experts, hands-on activities, books and even a play with mascots. Indulkar has been capitalising on the role of otters in river ecosystems. “First” he explains “that it is a top predator and also known to be an indicator of riverine health and the second thing is that it eliminates diseased fish.” Otters feed on fish, crabs, frogs and even snakes on some occasions. Once a disease strikes fish, “it tends to spread very rapidly and this can be a loss to the fishermen community.” Consequently, he stresses, “it is good to have otters in the rivers.” A child dressed up as an otter in a play. Photo by Malhar Indulkar. Since Tillari is the northernmost extent of small-clawed otters in the Western Ghats, Indulkar has been warning the villagers that “if they vanish from here, they would not exist in the checklist of Maharashtra state.” He tells them that it is a collective responsibility to conserve these elusive animals. In a play put together by school children, a child played the role of an otter mascot and another student wore a tiger costume. Indulkar explains that in their conversation, the tiger says “I am the king of the jungle; I kill prey and maintain the ecosystem” while the otter replies “I am also the king of Tillari River; I kill the diseased fish and maintain the health of the river system.” The children enjoyed the play, Indulkar recalls.