‘The Jackal and the Otters’ story narrated in the Dabbhapuppha Jataka is particularly interesting in terms of the information it contains about the different animal species deployed as characters. I will be having a closer look at two of them for the time being – the otters (Gambhiracari and Anutiracari) who are predators, and the great Rohita fish, their prey. The strongest contender for the otter species mentioned in the Jataka is the Smooth Coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata). The Rohita fish is none other than the Rohu Carp (Labeo rohita).

This is how the hunt is described in the tale:

At the moment, two otters, Gambhiracari and Anutiracari, were standing on the bank looking for fish. Gambhiracari saw a great Rohita fish, and entering the water with a bound he took it by the tail. The fish was strong and went away dragging him. He called to the other, “Friend Anutiracari, rush to my aid, I pray: I’ve caught a great fish: but by force he’s carrying me away.” Hearing him, the other spoke, “Gambhiracari, luck to you! Your grip be firm and stout, and as a roc would lift a snake, I’ll lift the fellow out.” Then the two together took out the Rohita fish, laid him on the ground and killed him: but saying each to the other, “You divide him,” they quarreled and could not divide him: and so sat down, leaving him.

We can arrive at a few observations about the otters and the carp from the passage above. First of all, the cooperative nature of the otters’ hunting technique. Second, the manner in which they capture and kill their mighty quarry. And last but not the least, the size and strength of the carp. Rohita is the Sanskrit name of the Rohu Carp. Member of the Labeo genus (of the carp family Cyprinidae), it is a large and omnivorous, freshwater fish found across the northern and central halves of South Asia, from Pakistan to Myanmar. Other members of the genus from the subcontinent include the Angrot (Labeo angra), the Bata (Labeo bata), the Ghonia (Labeo boggut), the Kalbasu (Labeo calbasu), the Ghainna (Labeo gonius), and the Baitka (Labeo pangusia).

A typically carp-shaped species, the Rohu has an arched head and a silvery tinge. It is one of the most important food fishes of South Asia, having been introduced to the Deccan and Sri Lanka. Adults breed in flooded rivers during the Southwest Monsoon of the subcontinent. The young have a preference for zooplankton which gives way to phytoplankton with increasing size. As they reach maturity around two years of age, they become bottom feeders relying on algae, weeds and decaying plant matter. By that time, they can reach almost 2 m in length and 45 kg in weight. No wonder the narrators of the Dabbhapuppha Jataka affixed the word ‘great’ to the Rohita.

The Smooth Coated Otter, like its prey, is also a native of South Asia. It is not the only otter species to be found in the region, sharing habitat with the Eurasia Otter (Lutra lutra) and the Asian Small Clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinerea). But the latter two are mostly restricted to the Himalayas, unlike the Smooth Coated species which has a pan-Indian presence. In contrast to the Rohu Carp, it is the only surviving member of its genus Lutrogale (of the family Mustelidae). Though counted among the larger members of the otter subfamily, it reaches a maximum size of 1.3 m  and 11 kg. That would make the Rohu it hunts almost one and a half times its length and four times its weight.

Hunting down such a big prey animal is no mean feat. And the Smooth Coated Otter seems to rely on both numbers and technique to succeed. A resident of floodplains and lowlands, it has a strong preference for freshwater (though it might stray into mangroves and estuaries). It is also a specialist, with a diet skewed heavily towards fish (from 75% to almost 100%). Other prey include rodents, birds, crabs and shrimps. Living in family groups up to ten strong, they are seen stalking fish in rivers, lakes, swamps and even rice paddies, in a clearly coordinated matter. Fish are herded by deploying a V-formation and captured within water (smaller specimens) or driven onshore (large ones like the Rohu). to be dispatched safely.

Here is a description of one such hunt by the IUCN Otter Specialist Group:

On 4 November 1993, we (BvH, BO) visited Kuala Selangor Nature Park, Peninsular Malaysia, a 240 ha conservation area in former mangrove forest managed by the Malaysian Nature Society. About 17.30 h just before sunset, we observed from the hide at the small lake a group of eight Smooth Coated Otters Lutrogale perspicillata foraging in the creek. The otter party cooperated very efficiently in chasing their prey. Two egrets, a heron and a kingfisher associated with the otter group. The birds benefited from the smaller fish chased ashore. Once the Great Egret attempted to steal prey from an otter.

Kuala Selangor (approx. 3°21′ N, 101°17′ E) is a system of artificial and natural creeks and lakes created in 1987‑1989 in logged‑over mangrove forest for conservation, environmental education, recreation and tourism. At low tide strips of mud are exposed along the banks between the water edge and the vegetation. Arriving just after a rainshower, the sky was overcast during the observation, but visibility was excellent. We used 10*25 binoculars and spent about 12 or 15 minutes observing the animals from a distance of 30‑60 m foraging over a distance of about 80 m, until the otters disappeared around a bend in the creek. It was an incidental event while on a recreational excursion.

Repeatedly the otter party spread out in a single, slightly V‑ shaped line, pointing in the direction of movement and nearly as wide as the creek. The largest individuals occupied the middle section. In this formation the otters undulated wildly through the creek, causing panic‑stricken fish to jump out of the water a few metres ahead. After two or three minutes, the otter at the point of the pack dived and disappeared, only to surface seconds later with a fish for about one‑third in its muzzle.

Instantaneously, the whole pack followed that example, a while later surfacing one after the other, many with a fish in the snout. The otters then moved ashore and consumed the fish on the muddy part of the bank. The otters tossed the fish up a little and swallowed it head‑first in one piece. Prey handling on the creek’s bank took no more than 10 seconds. We did not observe defaecation. Soon the otters started with a plunge and spread out again for the next sortie sweeping the width of the creek.

Image Attribution: The image above is an illustration – Quarrelsome Otters from ‘Hunting and Trapping Stories; A Book for Boys’ (1903), authored by J P Hyde Price and published by McLoughlin Bros. (New York). This particular copy has been preserved by The Library of Congress (USA) and digitized by Sloan Foundation.