Wildlife enthusiasts in Assam were in for a pleasant surprise recently as two species new to the region were identified in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve – the binturong (Arctictis binturong) and small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). This identification increases the number of mammal species in Northeast India’s biggest national park to 37.

The elusive binturong was photographed by Chirantanu Saikia, a tour guide and photographer hailing from Tezpur while Arun Vignesh, Divisional Forest Officer, Eastern Assam Wildlife was credited for photographing the small-clawed otter.

While both the species had previously been spotted by the local residents, they hadn’t been properly identified or recorded, says Assam-based environmentalist Anwaruddin Choudhury. “It is good that we finally have photographic evidence. Now, the conservation value of these animals will increase,” he shares.

Elusive binturong

A mammal native to south and southeast Asia, the binturong (also known as bearcat) is not easily found due to its nocturnal and arboreal habits. It is also uncommon in much of its range; in India it is known to have a distribution exclusive to the Northeast. It has been assessed as a vulnerable species by The International Union for Conservation of Nature because of its declining population.

During a jeep safari in the Burapahar range of Kaziranga, in January 2024, Saikia photographed an animal atop a tree but couldn’t decipher its identity yet.

Binturong, the largest civet species, was also photographed for the first time in Kaziranga. Credit: Chirantanu Saikia, via Mongabay.

“When I saw this unique creature sitting on top of a tree, I initially thought it was a grey headed fish-eagle. Even the forest guards accompanying us couldn’t identify the animal. I later sent the photos to my acquaintance Ranjit Kakati, Associate Professor, Chaiduar College who later confirmed it as a binturong,” he tells Mongabay-India.

Kakati also shares that people in areas around Kaziranga have spotted the species earlier, but there was never any hard evidence which could establish this claim. He says that deforestation and fragmentation in their habitat threatened their populations. “They live in elevated areas and prefer dense forests with a lot of canopy cover. They were last seen in Namdapha five years ago. Even in Behali, they were sighted about a decade back.”

Arun Vignesh, the DFO of Kaziranga adds, “The binturong is a shy nocturnal animal which makes it difficult to spot. During their patrolling inside the forest, our staff might have seen it earlier, but must have ignored it thinking it was a civet cat.”

Smallest otter species

The small-clawed otter, the smallest otter species in the world, has a wide distribution range, extending through India in South Asia to eastwards in Southeast Asia and southern China.

In India it is found mostly in the protected areas of West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh and in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and some parts of Kerala in the Western Ghats region. It was previously reported from western Himalayas and parts of Odisha, however no recent records of its presence has been found in these regions.

The species is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. It is also classified as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List and faces threat due to habitat destruction, poaching for pelt and reduction in prey.

“Smooth-coated otters are seen regularly in Kaziranga. As small-clawed otters are smaller in size, people might have mistaken it as the cubs of the smooth coated species,” says Vignesh, who had photographed the species. “We were trained for otter surveys and knew that there were three different species of otters found in India. Among them, smooth coated otters and Eurasian otters were already found in Kaziranga. Now, we have the small-clawed species as well.”

Small-clawed otter photographed for the first time in Kaziranga. Credit: Arun Vignesh, via Mongabay.

While patrolling inside the core area in Kohora range, he had noticed a group of otters. Two small otters were separated from the group.

“Their claws were very distinct. The claw of the smooth coated otter is like that of a dog but this one was like a human finger. I clicked photographs and consulted S Hussain, a retired scientist from Wildlife Institute of India and a specialist on otters. He said that this one is the smallest otter species found in India. He also noticed details like its fur not being very smooth and its tail being rounded,” Vignesh shares They believe that there must be a significant population of small clawed otters in Kaziranga and are planning to conduct surveys soon.

The significance of these two discoveries, Vignesh feels, is that there might be more such species in Kaziranga which are yet to be identified.

This article was first published on Mongabay.