Driving over the causeway, crossing the Sand River, I am always on the lookout for the animals I have become accustomed to seeing in this pristine aquatic ecosystem. I scan the water for a crocodile which usually has its jaws agape, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to drift into its death-trap. I wait for the rustle of reeds as a large monitor lizard slips off a boulder after catching the first morning rays of sunshine. I glance up to see a Pied Kingfisher hovering patiently in mid-air just before it dives into the shallow water, only to splash back out with nothing. I then hear the familiar grunt and a loud hiss of water as a pod of hippopotami pop their heads out of the water and exhale sharply at my presence.
These are the usual faces that reside in the Sand River and that make crossing the causeway such a special time with one’s guests.
So it was of the utmost surprise to me when I crossed the river the other day expecting to see its usual residents and a large seal-like animal looked up at me and quickly disappeared into the water. I was shocked but immediately realised I had just seen a Cape Clawless Otter! This was a first for me, so you can imagine how excited I was.
However, despite my enthusiasm I didn’t know much about these secretive animals so I did some research.
First of all the Cape Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis) is a mammal that loves hunting in shallow water for fish, crabs, frogs, insects and even small mammals. The populations that live on the coast do differ somewhat to their landlocked cousins in behaviour patterns, but there is still a lot of overlap. Their ideal habitat is in dense foliage where they use shady cover for hunting and protection from predators. This habitat is one of the reasons why Cape Clawless Otters are so rarely seen at Londolozi but the other reason has to do with the time of day at which they are most active. Due to the hot Lowveld climate, otters prefer to lie up in their burrows (holes dug out from sandy banks) during the day and then go hunting early in the morning and late in the afternoon, making them rather crepuscular.
The otter is perfectly adapted for an aquatic lifestyle. It doesn’t have a fat layer for insulation so its thick, furry coat is crucial for keeping itself warm during the cooler times of the year. Long, powerful tails are used as rudders and for powering through the water. Although they rely on sight for hunting a large proportion of their prey is found through feeling which means they thrive in water with poor visibility. They have long padded fingers which are ideal for digging in soft mud and feeling for crabs and other freshwater molluscs. Their long whiskers are sensory appendages called vibrissae which pick up on minute vibrations in the water indicating to the otter where a potential meal has just swum by.
Even though I was only able to watch this elusive animal for a few seconds I will not forget how awesome this sighting was. There is no doubt that from now on when I am on the causeway I will be on the lookout for not only the usual residents, but also a new face that is much more mysterious.