The box is long, airy, and emanates a constant stream of soft squeaks and chirps. Three fishermen stand around it, fit dark-skinned men with loose, cool clothes. The muscles on their arms stand out like beads on a cord. One of them holds onto a paddle, steering the boat towards the river’s center. Once there, the fishermen finally open the squeaking box’s lid. Three long, sleek shapes spill out, sliding around the boat before slipping ghost-like into the river. Satisfied, two of the men start playing out the nets as the shapes get to work.
The three shapes are actually otters – what we are witnessing is one of the few fishing techniques left in the world to use domesticated animals. In this case, the men are using specially trained individuals of a local species, the Asian smooth otter (Lutra perspicillata). How it works is that two of the three men on our boat will work the nets, specially-made constructs nearly as long as the boat itself. The other man steers the boat or directs the animals. The men and otters work in synch – the otters will chase nearby fish into the nets, which the men then haul aboard. While the fish they catch are not typically very large, this teamwork allows the men to take in a steady, reliable catch. The following video, about six minutes long, shows one of these boats at work.
Unfortunately, economic and social pressures have largely eliminated this traditional fishing practice. Once common throughout Bangladesh, today this practice is restricted to two or three nearby districts. And while this can actually be one of the most efficient methods of fishing, the technique requires daily expeditions to stay profitable. Broken equipment, heavy rain, or other disasters can quickly cause trouble for otter-assisted fishers. This is compounded by high start-up and maintenance costs – many of the fishers end up relying on money lenders throughout at least part of the year. Furthermore, many of the communities are made up of ethnic minorities, which can hinder societal or governmental support.
But it appears that people are starting to take note of this unique teamwork. Like many traditional techniques, what is lost in profitability can be made up for in cultural and ecological value because, besides preserving a unique fishing technique, these communities are also unintentionally playing a larger part in South Asia’s burgeoning conservation movement.
In the wild, these otters are facing increasing threats from a modernizing Bangladesh. However, these trained otters can not only breed in captivity, it’s been shown that captive animals can be successfully reintroduced to the wild (possibly due to how the fishermen use and promote the otters natural fishing instincts). It’s hoped that direct involvement by national and international groups could make these otters a hallmark example of traditional conversation.
Sources: Feeroz, Begum, and Hasan (2011).