If you ask guides, past and present, whether they have ever seen a Cape Clawless Otter at Londolozi, you are met with a mixed response. Chris Goodman will roll his eyes and tell you that he’s still not sure that they actually exist after his one sighting in close to two decades of being here. Pete Thorpe will say you just need to take a walk along the Sand River and you should spot one. Andrea Campbell documented her search for otters at Londolozi by setting up trail cameras along the river for a couple of weeks, which seemed to take photos of everything else other than what she was hoping for, and recently I was finally able to compare notes with Josh Attenborough regarding our respective sightings of otters at the causeway.
One evening, as I was crossing back over the Sand River at the causeway, I saw a crocodile lying in one of the usual pools. This in itself was not an unusual sighting, but just behind him, a movement in the water caught my eye. As my eyes focused, I made out the distinctive shape of an otter’s head poking out of the water, and I couldn’t believe my luck when it continued fishing completely unperturbed by the presence of the vehicle.
What makes them so difficult to spot?
Otters are incredibly secretive by nature, and although they do exist in the waterways of the Sand River on Londolozi, a sighting of them is an incredibly rare occurrence, so to sit in silence and observe this one fishing was extraordinary. On top of being shy, otters are primarily nocturnal animals, where they are most active in hunting for food. During this time, if they hear or see a vehicle, they are likely to slip into the water and disappear into the reeds, making it very unlikely to see them for any length of time.
During the day, they will usually sleep in dens or burrows, known as a holt, along the riverbank, making them even harder to spot. However, if they are out and about, it is often a time when they are playing about, and if one is lucky enough to stumble upon them at a distance, you may get a half-decent sighting of them before they notice they are being watched and slip away.
Cape clawless otters are excellent swimmers and are known for their unique fishing techniques. Unlike other otter species, they do not have claws and instead have webbed paws, which they use to dig through the sand and gravel along the riverbed to catch small fish and crustaceans. They are also known to feed on crabs, frogs, and other aquatic creatures. Going back to the sighting of the otter that I mentioned earlier, we watched as he came onto the causeway in front of us and frantically kept searching the flowing river for anything to eat.
I knew from a bit of research that otters are also social animals and are often found in family groups. They communicate through a series of chirps, whistles, and growls, and they use scent marking to establish their territories along the riverbank, so I was desperately hoping that another one might join this one in front of me, but it was not to be.
I sat watching it for a while before it disappeared into the reeds, and even though I had been fortunate enough to have seen one before, they had always been very brief sightings. To spend 20 uninterrupted minutes with this rare creature was such a privilege and a reminder of how much there is to see out here. No matter how many game drives you have been on or how many years you have spent in the bush, there is always something new to see, and you never know when that moment is going to happen.