In the morning mist of Scarborough or late evening dusk along Glencairn beach they can look a lot like seals, but if you look closer – at the long tails and stubby legs – you may be rewarded with a rare sighting of a Cape Clawless Otter. They are elusive creatures, often evading even the most careful wildlife enthusiast. However, in the South Peninsula, they are usually closer than you think, sometimes clinging precariously to life in one of our degraded aquatic ecosystems.
Otters are adaptable animals and live almost everywhere in South Africa where they can access fresh water for drinking, feeding and rinsing; and reed beds for building their holts (breeding dens). Therein lies the challenge – freshwater quality is declining throughout the country and with that the threat to otters is increasing.
The Cape Peninsula provides a microcosm of the otter’s habitat preferences and threats. There are frequent signs of otters on beaches where a river meets the sea, or on the rocks surrounding rivers and dams. They feed mainly on crabs, fish and crayfish, which gives their faeces (scat) a distinctive texture (shell fragments) and colour (orange, white and brown). Their paw prints are also easily distinguished from other mammals by the lack of claws on their forefeet and early morning walkers are often privy to these signs before they are erased under the heavy human and dog traffic that typify our coastline.
Otters are top predators in our rivers and wetlands, which means they have an important role in regulating the ecosystem and maintaining the ecosystem’s health. It is well-known that otters in other parts of the world have proven to play a vital role in maintaining the health of kelp beds by regulating the spread of sea urchins in a marine environment. Removal of otters in those systems proved to be catastrophic, causing an entire ecosystem collapse, and in doing so raised awareness over the conservation value of otters worldwide.
Although their population size on the Peninsula is unknown, their conservation status in South Africa is thought to be stable. However, little is known about the extent to which the potential threats to the species are impacting the population. Habitat degradation and increasing levels of pollution have proven to impact negatively on other otter species worldwide, with populations in parts of the UK showing steady declines in highly polluted areas. Their reliance on fresh water in an urban environment like the South Peninsula does put them at risk to exposure to pollutants and the loss of suitable habitat. In addition, the fact that they’re most active at dawn and dusk makes them difficult to monitor, and so any change in population size might not be noted until it is too late.
It is for this reason that we are commencing with a project to study the otters in the Cape Peninsula. Still in its early stages, the project aims to understand the spatial ecology of otters living in the Peninsula: how they use the urban space as opposed to the more natural, pristine areas; and most importantly to gain insight into how they are coping with the pollution loads in the urban rivers. Ultimately, by understanding the needs of an aquatic top predator, the project hopes to provide management recommendations for the conservation and sustainable use of the Peninsula’s rivers and wetlands, which in turn will benefit all species dependent on these systems for their survival.
A Peninsula Otter Watch is currently being set up to coordinate sightings and monitoring the presence, injuries and deaths of otters in the Cape Peninsula. Please contact Nicola Okes with details of any otter sightings: location, time, unusual behaviour or markings/injuries, what the otter was doing, and any other information you may have. Photographs and GPS positions of sightings are most welcome. Contact Nicola Okes at email@example.com or on 082 961 9082.
by Nicola Okes photographs courtesy of Jeremy Bolton’