The second largest out of all freshwater species, the African clawless otter is well known for its luxurious hair, very silky in appearance and to the touch. These animals are acrobatic, curious and clever, and are perfectly adapted to the aquatic environment in which they live. Their dense, short fur insulates their bodies when they are swimming, their webbed back feet provide them with power, and their strong tails act as rudders. They have very playful personalities, especially once they have eaten.
The African clawless otter is Africa’s most widely distributed otter, from Senegal, through most parts of West Africa as far as Ethiopia, and in the south to South Africa. It occurs in any large area of suitable habitat to the south of the Sahara, except the Congo Basin. This species inhabits a wide variety of freshwater habitats, such as streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries, as well as marine habitats, including rocky seashores, as long as freshwater can be accessed, which is essential for washing and drinking. Although usually found in water, these otters can also travel long distances overland.
An African clawless otter is a solitary animal. Groups of 4 to 6, consisting of 2 to 3 adults with 2 to 3 young, are sometimes seen, and larger groups sometimes form to forage. This species is most active at dawn and dusk (known as crepuscular). During the day they sleep in burrows or dens. The majority of their time awake is spent swimming, foraging, hunting, playing, and sunbathing. On land, they either trot like a seal or walk slowly, sometimes travelling over 7 km between one body of water and another. An African clawless otter does most of its hunting in water. They dive for fish, with dives lasting 6 to 49 seconds, with an average of 18 seconds per dive. Straight after eating, an otter will clean its face with its forefeet. After bouts of hunting they may leave the water to dry off or to play.
African clawless otters are mainly carnivores. In freshwater habitats, they eat primarily crabs, and they also eat insects, frogs, and various species of fish. The diet in marine habitats is mainly fish, but also crab, abalone and Cape rock lobsters. They sometimes will eat ducks, geese, coots, swans, mollusks, dragonfly larvae, reptiles, shrews, and small birds.
Little is known about the mating system of African clawless otters. However, what is known is that after mating, males and females go separate ways, returning to their solitary lives. This and the fact that young are raised solely by the females may suggest that African clawless otters exhibit a polygynous mating system. Breeding occurs mostly during the dry season, though it may take place at any time of the year. Gestation lasts for about 63 days. Litters can number 1 to 3 pups, but up to 5 per litter have been known for animals in captivity. They are born altricial (in an undeveloped state and needing parental care) but after 16 to 30 days open their eyes and can leave their den. Weaning takes place after 45 to 60 days old. They are independent and reproductively mature from the age of 1 year.
In some areas within its large range, these otters are killed for their sleek fur, or for the use of other body parts in traditional medicines. Sometimes they are killed because people believe that they compete with humans for fish, or because they get the blame for a raid on a fish farm or the death of domestic hens or ducks. Sometimes otters drown when they become tangled in fishing nets. This species may also be affected in some areas by loss or degradation of its habitat. Development, deforestation, overgrazing, wetlands being drained, and water extraction all impact negatively on the quality of the aquatic habitat and surrounding vegetation on which these animals depend.
According to the MPALA LIVE resource, the total number of African clawless otters in South Africa is around 21,500 individuals. Currently this species is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.
As predators, they may have an influence on the numbers of their prey species: crabs, fish, frogs, and insects.