By Nicholas Asheshov
Last Friday an otter appeared, warming itself in the morning sun on the path between the trees on the riverbank and our duck pond.
No one has seen an otter here for 30 years. I couldn’t decide whether to rush out and tell everyone or whether to keep it to myself, like when you find a new cebicheria.
The otter, which slipped into the pond with the wild immigrant ducks from Canada, was “a fish with two kinds of lungs,” Fernando, our nurseryman said, adding that it was “silvery”. That tells you how long it’s been since countrymen round Urubamba, 2,800 metres above sea level, have seen an otter on the banks of the Rio Vilcanota. Sra. Ana, our housekeeper, was less imaginative and more accurate: “It was like a cat, brownish with a flat tail, like on the telly.”
Now, we all know that the Rio Vilcanota, which runs from way up behind Cuzco and is the main river for the Sacred Valley, including Machu Picchu, is filthy, heavily polluted and getting worse. Most of the effluent, industrial waste as well as raw sewage, comes straight out of Cuzco itself via the Rio Huatanay, a tributary which is these days just a smelly ditch.
I’m surprised, for a start, that there are any fish left for an otter to eat. So we have to suppose that the fish, trout invariably, and the otter are going to the trouble of adapting to civilization. There are trout in all the cold mountain streams that bring the snowmelt down to the main river. The other day I met a 10-year-old girl and her four-year-old sister up in the Chicon valley carrying an old paint bucket with half a dozen trout between 15 and 20 centimetres long swimming around. She’d caught five and the tiny sister one, she explained, by lying on the bank and holding her hand in a pool until a trout floats into her fingers. Then she flips it out over her shoulder. In England, us kids and poachers called this “tickling” trout.
Coincidently, the New York Times the other day reported that a beaver had taken up residence in the river in the Bronx. So my Urubamba otter may not be so strange.
Otters, rather like owls, are uncommon but universal. You could find them in the marshes of the lower Euphrates, in northern Europe, all over North America and of course in the rivers of South America. There are also sea otters; there are still some left on the coast here. There have been best-sellers about tame otters, like “Tarka the Otter” and “Ring of Bright Water”.
You can still find otters in the more remote corners of the jungle. A couple of years ago the kids and I watched for half an hour a family pack of them in a lake in the Manu Park, over the hills from Urubamba. One of the older otters surfaced as we watched with an impressive two-foot fish flapping in his mouth. He nipped up out of the water onto a fallen tree-trunk a few yards from a crowd of baby otters who immediately started yapping and jumping up and down on their own tree-trunk. After a while the dad chewed down a piece of the fish and then let the cubs come and wolf down the rest of it. I was feeling quite proud of being a dad when my wife said, “I’m pretty sure that was the mother”.
What’s done it in for otters in many parts of the jungle has been the continual dynamiting of lakes and stretches of the rivers, or the use more traditionally of barbasco, a natural poison dumped into the river. Both of them kill everything around. Even though the otters themselves are probably canny enough to escape, there’s no food left for them. Today when people eat fish in and around jungle towns, it’s mostly canned atun from the coast.
I thought of popping over to the local trout farm and pouring a bucket full of fat, ready-to-eat live fish, at S/10 the kilo, into the duck pond. But in the unlikely event that this might work, I’d have been saddled with an otter family. Charming, but as much of a worry as my own kids and possibly almost as expensive.
Published in Caretas Magazine the week of March 4, 2007