Since mid-February otter conservation organisation, the International Otter Survival Fund, have been helping missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo to raise an orphaned Congo Clawless Otter.
Due to commercial hunting for meat and fur, the Congo Clawless Otter population numbers has undergone severe decline. In an area, where it’s the culture to hunt, the saving and raising of a rare wild creature has generated much interest and amazement within the local population (and further afield!). It has created an environment for conservation education, which has now become a focus of learning in, and outwith, the Congo village of Kikongo in Bandundu Province, where wildlife, habitat and land is constantly under threat.
The story began when the IOSF, received an email from missionaries, Glen and Rita Chapman, based in the Congolese village. The message simply read, “A hunter brought a dead female Congo Clawless Otter from the forest today. He also had a white newborn female pup-otter – eyes still closed, but very much alive... outlook is bleak.”
IOSF immediately arranged for otter milk substitute to be despatched, whilst in the meantime Rita and Glen improvised – eventually the milk was delivered by supply plane. A week later, the cub was thriving and had grown 8cm!
Very soon, a network of zoos, vets and other otter conservation groups were pooling their expertise and knowledge, via email, to help Rita and Glen.
In the local language, the word ‘Mazu’ means noise – and this is what Glen and Rita called the young orphan. It’s particularly apt, as Mazu makes a variety of noises – a range of happy snuffling, sighs, small whistles, tweets, twitters and squeaks.
In May, Rita wrote, “Yesterday, we were informed that some children found a mouse, cleaned it up, put powder on it, and want to make a house for it. They say they want to do like Mama Rita is doing with the otter! Isn't it nice that some kids are beginning to see some creature as more than meat? Is this the beginning of conservation I wonder?”
Very quickly the word spread, that something unusual was happening in Kikongo - supply pilots, visitors to the area, local dignitaries and visiting students are all anxious to meet Mazu and learn about her (and conservation!) The Chapman’s live close to the village’s airstrip, and many people in transit, now stop by to see Mazu, and learn more about Congo Clawless Otters.
Rita reports “One of the elders called by. We showed him Mazu and asked about otters. He says they have them upriver where he lives. He says they confuse the otter prints with lion prints (they are that large!) He says they are mostly in the swamp and along the streams, but they don't see them very much in the open river. He imitated the otter call. Since he is close to the chief, we asked if they would make a general announcement for people not to shoot otters.”
A politician from Kinshasa also expressed an interest to meet Mazu – he’d heard about the conservation programme being carried out with her ‘help’ – when he visited, this also facilitated an opportunity for local villagers to put forward a delegation, and engineer conversations about land use.
In the meantime, Mazu is learning to catch her own fish, taking great pleasure in rolling, playing and eating the non-native water hyacinth – like most otters she combines eating with play, and Rita and Glen admit that they are now ‘trained’ in carrying fresh supplies from the river each day.
Recently, Rita reported “No doubt about it, Mazu is a show stopper and ambassador for otter conservation wherever she goes.”
“In the evening when the whole community is taking various paths to wash up in the river or springs, people stand at respectful distances waiting for Mazu to pass by so that they can get a good look at her. They are impressed with her beauty, her size, her teeth (!), and awed that a wild animal can live with people. Or, as often seems the case to us, we live with her.”
“Invariably, there are further observations and questions that follow these encounters and others at the house. Those adults and children, who regularly help with Mazu's care, seem to enjoy educating amazed visitors who frequently stop by Mazu's outside enclosure, to watch her digging or playing in her pools. For those who can read French, a Congo Clawless Otter fact sheet is available on the fence for reading. Each and everyday, informal, but important conversations are taking place regarding Mazu and her value in our swamps and rivers.”
Grace Yoxon, of IOSF, says, “Working with Glen and Rita and Mazu is so exciting. When we first heard about Mazu we were all just concerned with helping them to rear her, but what they are doing for otter conservation through her is simply amazing. We also now have a network of experts around the world working with us, and, of course, Rita and Glen, who can share their knowledge and expertise. This network sprang into action once again (in May), when another cub (this time a Spotted Neck Otter) was found on the other side of the Congo.
People worldwide have been following Mazu’s story on the IOSF Blog on our website, and it is great to have this support. The milk we sent for Mazu has to be imported from America; we also use it for the cubs we care for at our Skye sanctuary. Cubs stay with their mothers for about a year, so we have to release them at the same age as otherwise they won’t survive. This makes it very expensive and so the support we receive is vital.
If anyone wants to know more about Mazu or the work of IOSF they can find out more on the website at www.otter.org ”
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Further images to accompany this story can be found (viewed by slideshow, thumbnails and downloaded) at:
Image notes for editors/publishers: you are free to use any of the images listed, to accompany this story and they should be credited to Glen Chapman. However, a voluntary donation would be greatly appreciated, no matter how small (or large!) to support the IOSF’s work, helping the otters of the world.
About Otters in the Congo:
*There are two types of otter in the area – Congo Clawless (Aonyx congicus) and the Spotted Neck Otter (Lutra maculicollis). The Clawless Otter is the second largest otter in the world. This species resides around wetlands, streams or ponds in the rainforests of Central Africa. Although most otters are considered aquatic, this otter is thought to be more terrestrial.
The Congo Clawless Otter is dark brown in colour which helps it blend into its muddy surroundings. White tips of the hairs on the dorsal head and neck area give it a silvery look. The chest, nose, and ears are white. There is also a very distinguished patch of dark fur between the eye and the nose on each side of the face. The front feet have no claws or webbing. The back feet have very small claws, which are partially webbed.
The Congo Clawless Otter is a larger than most species, with a total length of 118 to 156 cm, with 40 to 59 cm of it being the tail. Adults usually weigh between 15 to 25 kg. The Congo Clawless Otter is very similar in appearance to the Cape Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis). However, the Congo Clawless Otter has a more slender head and neck, the cheeks tend to be white rather than beige as in the Cape Clawless, and the dark mark between the eye and nose is more prominent. A less obvious distinguishing characteristic is the more deeply cusped molars.
Predators: birds of prey, crocodiles, leopards, pythons, and man.
Otter bush meat is common in Congo and Cameroon, but not in Gabon because of its reputation of being a dangerous animal - the myth in Gabon is that otters can give electric shocks when caught with a spear. Some people don’t like to eat otters because of the smell which can linger!
Otters are also thought to be magical and possess powers that when you catch an otter, skin it, and wear its fur, you are thought to become invisible to your enemy. This emanates from the belief of the otter’s ability to escape fish traps. Its fur is also used in Cameroon to make drums.
All 13 species of otters are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) - a worldwide treaty developed in 1973 to regulate trade in wildlife species.
Mazu’s story – further background:
*Story according to the hunter, Mundweni, a fisherman, who ‘found’ Mazu:
He was setting fishing lines in the swamp, and heard a noise and waded over to a log to investigate. The mother jumped out with the baby in her mouth. He pursued the otter, who in the process dropped the pup. He continued after her until he was able to kill her and then went back into the swamp to recover the baby. He then described with tenderness how he found the baby spluttering in the water, how he picked the baby up and dried her off with his shirt. What a contrast between the sheer courage and skill of a hunter, and his compassion for a helpless baby animal whom he had just orphaned. He said it took him a long time to figure out what he had killed. It is rare to see an otter, much less to kill one.
*24 September, Glen wrote:
“Rita and Mazu went to the river ahead of me yesterday afternoon. As I was going down, I noticed some young men talking about someone pretty. Since the high schoolers have just arrived for the beginning of the school year, I thought these teenagers were describing some young shapely classmate. It was such an animated conversation, that it made me want to find out who this lovely girl was. They were speaking in Lingala, so I asked "Nani azali kitoko boye?" (Who is this one who is so pretty?) Much to my surprise, these young men were not describing some young girl that they had just seen, but Mazu who had just passed them on the trail.”
*The ‘help’ network of experts around the world, together with the IOSF, and, of course, Rita and Glen, shared their knowledge and expertise once again (in May), when another cub (this time a Spotted Neck Otter) was found on the other side of the Congo.
*The villagers are learning more about otters – Mazu likes to eat small water snails and local people had said they had seen piles of these, but didn’t know what creature was eating them. They were shown tracks made by Mazu, and now they are able to identify that it’s a Congo Clawless Otter, that has been snacking on the snails.
* In November, Glen wrote:
"Living with Mazu while we have full time work is a real challenge. If she was just a pet, I don't think we could handle it. The motivation for us is that Mazu is such a lesson for conservation. As for visiting schools, all I have is a bicycle, and an ultra-light. Not ideal for transportation.
We haven't even put Mazu in a canoe yet, but with the river rising, a canoe may be a good solution to accompanying her along the river.
So, our educational methods would certainly be non-conventional, but Mazu is a star. People come from far and wide to see and admire her. They are surprised that such creatures live in their swamps and river. They see footprints all the time, but seldom see a live otter. We have some French material that describes otters, but mainly Mazu gives us a jumping off point for talking about conservation in general.”
* From Rita, in November:
“Glen shows videos on a big white sheet on the soccer field. Crowds come; spreading cloths and mats on the ball field as a variety of films are projected. Often, these include excerpts of nature and conservation films that Glen translates for the audience. Visual aids like these are popular, and we hope will bear fruit as our growing population moves from hunter/gatherer to an appreciation for the benefits conservation can bring them."
The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) is one of the world’s leading otter charities, and was inspired by observing otters in their natural habitat. In the UK IOSF is the only charity solely dedicated to the conservation, protection and care of otters based on 20 years of scientific research in the UK and around the world.
Because the otter lives, feeds and plays on land and in the water and is at the peak of the food chain it is an ambassador species to a first class environment. IOSF was set up to protect and help the 13 species of otter worldwide through a combination of compassion and science. The IOSF support projects to protect otters, which will also ensure a healthy environment for all species.
To achieve these aims IOSF has many activities:
+ Otter Hospital – on Skye there is a specialist rehabilitation centre which cares for injured and orphaned otters from throughout Britain.
+ Education – IOSF runs courses for people interested in otters and give talks to schools, natural history groups, etc.
+ Research – Otter surveys and work to reduce otter deaths on the road
+ Campaigns – The major campaign (Furget-Me-Not) is to combat the fur trade in south east Asia, starting in Cambodia. In the UK IOSF is supporting the call for a ban on the use of snares in Scotland.
International projects include the Marine Otter in Chile, Spotted Necked Otter in Kenya, Eurasian Otter in Ireland, Hairy Nosed Otter in Cambodia.
Otters are part of the Mustelid family of animals which also includes badgers, pine martens and weasels.
There are 13 species of otter around the world and many of them are endangered.
To date the IOSF have had projects in 30 countries and helped to support cubs in 12 countries, besides their own work in Scotland.
The International Otter Survival Fund
7 Black Park
Isle of Skye IV49 9DE
Tel/FAX: ++1471 822 487
The International Otter Survival Fund - working to save the world's otters
Contacts at IOSF:
Jackie West, Jackie West Marketing and PR