There are 13 species of otter, 12 of which are known to be declining. In Africa otters are often overlooked, with attention directed towards other, high-profile, mammal species. There are three otter species in sub-Saharan Africa: the spotted-necked Hydrictis maculicollis (formerly Lutra maculicollis), African clawless Aonyx capensis and Congo clawless Aonyx congicus otters. In 2015 all three species were categorized as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The assessment process highlighted the lack of recent information, with much data over 25 years old.
Many of the issues facing otters, such as habitat loss, pollution, climate change and problems driven by poverty, are common to other species. Otters also face conflict with fishermen and are hunted for fur and for use in traditional medicine. But the main problem for otter conservation is lack of awareness and the resultant paucity of funding available for research, education and conservation.
During 20–25 July 2015 the International Otter Survival Fund organized the first Pan-African training workshop at the College of Wildlife Management, Mweka, Tanzania. The aim was to train participants in field techniques, public awareness programmes, law enforcement and general conservation issues, through classroom studies, discussion and practical field work. Participants came from Benin, The Gambia, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania. Some attendees were already working with otters through research or community work, as park rangers or ecologists or in associated fields such as wetland protection.
During the workshop Rita Chapman, Lubama Delphin Kumbi and Mubuma Chico Lunko from DRC gave a presentation about the rescue, rearing and release during 2010–2012 of two Congo clawless otter cubs. These otters became ambassadors for the Kikongo Otter Sanctuary in DRC, which is dedicated to conserving otters and raising awareness in the local community. These experiences provided insights into how to work with communities who may encounter impacts of otters on fishing.
The workshop identified long- and short-term goals for future work. As research alone is not conservation yet all programmes must be founded on sound scientific data, the workshop identified four goals: (1) develop projects to gather data on otter distribution, behaviour and threats, (2) share such data and experience through an active African otter network, (3) develop education material appropriate to community needs that can also be shared through the network, and (4) use social media to generate more awareness of otters and their importance in ecosystems.
To improve public awareness a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/AfricanOtter1?fref=ts) has been established for posting photographs of African otters and their signs, with a link to a confidential form for more detailed location information. The page is linked to the website of the International Otter Survival Fund (www.otter.org) and to the African Otter Outreach Project (www.facebook.com/pages/African-Otter-Outreach-Project/181450325232204?fref=ts). An invitation-only online forum has been created for people to share experiences and to seek help and share education tools, and a second African Otter Workshop is planned for 2017, in another region of Africa so as to facilitate attendance from other nations.
New data are already being received. In 2005 a possible spotted-necked otter spraint was found at Lake Manyara, Tanzania, and the occurrence of the species there has now been confirmed by a sighting in 2015. Spotted-necked otters have also been seen at Lake Kivu in Rwanda, and otter signs have been found at Liparamba Game Reserve, Tanzania, although as yet the species has not been confirmed.
The workshop was funded by the Anderson-Rogers Foundation, the Animal Defence Trust, Columbus Zoo, the Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation, Sacramento Zoo and private donors.