The African otters are familiar aquatic predators with three distinctive species across sub-Saharan Africa with habitat ranges overlapping in western Uganda, where all three have been seen in areas like Lake Mburo National Park.
These fascinating predators have an irresistible propensity for play, and their sense of the mysterious appeals to many travellers who enjoy watching them. Otter sightings are brief and infrequently fascinating to those fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of these extraordinary aquatic mammals.
African otters are referred to as “fisi maji” in Swahili, meaning “water hyena”. Like hyenas, otters are opportunistic carnivores with mighty jaws capable of ripping flesh off a bone, but they are also fast-paced and efficient hunters.
Otters are members of the Mustelid family that includes badgers, polecats, martens, weasels, stoats, honey badgers, and mink.
The three species of African otters that inhabit western Uganda include the Congo clawless otter, African clawless otter, and spotted-necked otter.
Closely related to African Clawless Otter and very similar, the Congo clawless otter has silver tips to the end of hairs on the neck and head and dark patches of fur between the eyes and nostrils.
It is the least adapted of all otters to the aquatic way of life and has short fur providing less insulation. The back feet are only partly webbed, and the front has no webbing.
The African clawless otter is similar in appearance to the Congo Clawless Otter. Although it is born with tiny claws, it loses these on all toes except the middle three on the hind feet. It has no webbing and can therefore use its “fingers” more freely than other species.
It captures most of its prey in its paws, hunting by sight and using the long vibrissae (whiskers) that help when hunting in murky waters.
African clawless otter is associated with most wetland habitats and is most active between dusk and dawn. It is less likely to be seen than the smaller and darker spotted-necked otter—a diurnal otter widespread and visible around Lake Bunyonyi in Kigezi.
African clawless otter is generally active during the late afternoon and early evening and, like many otter species, has set sprinting points and grooming areas. It is usually seen alone or in pairs, but occasionally in family groups of up to five animals.
The Spotted-necked otter is smaller and darker than the African Clawless Otter and has a pale neck with spots. It is a diurnal otter and likes deep water habitats like lakes, where it dives for fish and amphibians.
The Spotted-necked otter inhabits freshwater habitats where water is un-silted, unpolluted, and rich in small to medium-sized fishes.
While comparatively common in the great lakes of Central and East Africa, they are also found in streams, rivers and impoundments up to altitudes of 2,500 m. In riparian and lacustrine habitats, adequate vegetation in the form of long grass, reeds, dense bushes, overhanging trees and large boulder piles is essential to provide cover during periods of inactivity and denning.