Update on African Otters
By Dr. Jo Thompson

On 14 August 2001, the IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group (OSG) presented a workshop titled, "African otters - How to increase knowledge of biology, distribution and threats to survival." The workshop convened in Sun City, South Africa and was co-moderated by Mr. Claus Reuther, Chairman IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group, and Prof. Jan Nel, Coordinator for the IUCN/SSC Africa Otter Specialist Group. The program included a session lead by Prof. Nel detailing "What do we know and what do we not know about biology, distribution and threats of African otters," a session lead by Mr. Reuther presenting the "State of knowledge about otters on other continents and examples of initial activities to increase this knowledge," and a plenary discussion concerning "How could knowledge about biology, distribution and threats to African otters be increased and which activities should be the priorities."

As reported by Prof. Nel, there are four species of otters in Africa: the Cape Clawless (Aonyx capensis), the Spotted-necked Otter (Lutra maculicollis), the Congo Clawless Otter (Aonyx congicus) and the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra). The distribution of the Eurasian Otter is narrowly limited on the continent to a range covering the supra-Saharan countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Knowledge about the three sub-Saharan species varies, but for all three species knowledge is severely lacking. While initial studies (made several decades ago) on the Cape Clawless Otter and the Spotted-necked Otter provided some data on their biology in southern most Africa, the Congo Clawless Otter still remains largely a mystery (see article in The River Otter Journal, Volume IX, Number 1, Spring 2000, pgs 4-5). One of the main problems for the conservation of these African otter species is the insufficient knowledge of their distribution and the threats they are facing for survival, especially with regards to their current status. Much of the wetland habitats of Africa fall within the central continental nations whose recent history is dominated by human unrest and armed conflict making research and conservation efforts difficult or impossible. Thus, it was stated that our knowledge of African otter biology, distribution and survival threats is singularly deficient.

The OSG promotes otters as very unique mammals and encourages their use as ambassadors for all kinds of wetland conservation (they are the top of the riverine food chain). Based on the OSG's successful experiences in Europe, Asia and Latin America, Mr. Reuther proposed that otters could be very useful "tools" for conservation activities in the developing countries of Africa, including habitat management activities, public awareness, ecotourism, and fundraising projects. But, this can only happen after research and conservation efforts are initiated.

The priority areas for study were defined as: species distribution at fine-scale resolution (including population fragmentation and range contraction); diet and prey/food availability; activity patterns and factors affecting activity patterns; habitat use, parameters, availability, and degradation; and possible competition with man for food.

After much discussion, it was clear that experiences from other continents cannot be easily applied to African otter research and conservation. To begin the process of collecting knowledge about biology, distribution, and survival threats of African otters, researchers on the ground must use opportunistic data, especially the perspective and information from local human populations, as well as determination of spraint composition. We must initiate interest in otters through all individuals, groups, and institutions involved in wildlife conservation and research in Africa. The activity priorities must focus on issues of identifying where African otters occur, what threatens their survival, differentiation of species, and data for population genetics. It was agreed among the participants from the field that otters are generally inconsequential to daily human life and survival, therefore they are little known even by rural people. Local humans are most informed about those species that they target for consumption. Since otters are not widely sought as a source of human food, there is not much interest in them or knowledge about their natural history. Regarding ecotourism activities, tourism focuses on the charismatic mega-fauna symbolic of our image of "Africa," such as elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, buffalos (the "big five"), gorillas, herds of migrating wildebeests, zebras, etcetera. So, our task is first and foremost to put otters on everyone's radar screen. In Africa we must adopt the mantra "Otters, otters, otters" and all work actively on "otter marketing." The interest of international conservation, scientific, and research groups and individuals will prompt range countries to demonstrate their commitment towards learning and preserving their resident otter populations.

Activities for African otter research and conservation must begin at the most fundamental level: surveying local human populations with standardized techniques. This will require simple species identification tools (such as a notebook of material in transparencies showing footprints, physical characteristics, and images of each species) and a standardized, very basic set of questions to ask, including local names. Professional, governmental, academic, and non-governmental bodies from the countries of projected otter distribution must be incorporated in an increased network of communication. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in collaboration with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (equivalent to the National Department of Parks) we have recently introduced Ranger-based Monitoring Data Sheets that enable park rangers of Salonga National Park to systematically collect data on and uniformly report the status of significant target species, including otters. This first-of-its-kind national data collection system will promote recording of the general progress of the park's daily monitoring patrols, weather conditions, human activity observed (such as evidence of fire and presence of traps by type and number, livestock, poachers, and wood cutters), direct or indirect details about specific faunal species' activities and locations, and the presence and disturbance of identified habitat types. This should also facilitate implementation of training for Park Rangers and concurrently increase local public awareness. These findings should be shared through publications and conferences, ultimately leading to influencing conservation activities at the national level.

The IUCN/SSC Africa Otter Specialist Group workshop also opened possibilities for cooperation across countries and research interests, including scientific cooperation regarding field surveys, realization of management cooperation for habitat conservation, and collaboration towards education/raising public awareness.

I acknowledge the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project for financial support to attend this workshop.