Growing up in Kommetjie, a small town in the Western Cape, Dr Nicola Okes says she had always been fascinated by a family of otters living near her grandmother's home.
"Their shy and elusive nature meant we would never see the otters - just signs of them: their footprints for example, so as a child, they seemed magical to me," Dr Okes recalls.
This magical family of otters would inspire the biologist to study semiaquatic marine life at university, which would eventually lead her to pen her first children's book, Otters Way Home.
"Otters are adorable and loved by children all over the world - yet many don't know that we have our own, unique otter, only found on the African continent. I wanted to celebrate our otters and illustrate the challenges they face in a subtle way, all while showcasing the beauty of the Cape Peninsula," Okes explained.
Dr Okes says children will also find the book quite relatable given the traits they share with the otter.
"Both otters and children are naturally curious, sometimes shy and can find it hard to ask for help. Yet when they do explore and engage, there are many wonders to be seen and experienced".
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'The magic and beauty of the nature around them'
Elaborating further, the author and biologist says she felt it necessary to use her scientific research to inspire future generations.
"As important as scientific research is for our understanding of how to protect the natural environment, it is equally important to inspire young children to engage in the magic and beauty of the nature around them".
Okes credits the artwork of Gerda Smit and the work of authors from the African Penguin Series for bringing her vision of Otters Way Home to life.
'Struggling due to human and residential encroachment'
Through her book, Dr Okes also hopes to raise awareness about the environmental needs of the Cape Clawless Otter and the threats they face due to inhabiting urban spaces.
"The otter population in Cape Town specifically - in the urban areas - are struggling due to human and residential encroachment into their wetland habitat. This means not only do they run out of space but also that the waterways and waterbodies they rely on are getting increasingly polluted," she explains.
Living in such close proximity to humans also makes them vulnerable to poisoning and car accidents, the biologist says.
"As otters move at night or early morning from their wetland habitat where they sleep to the sea where they forage; they cross busy coastal roads and are at risk of car collisions," Okes says, adding that the residents of Cape Town have been instrumental in monitoring and reporting these local creatures.
"Monitoring of otters continues through the use of surveys as well as sightings submitted by residents across Cape Town. Any reports of otter sightings can be submitted to the African Otter Network, and these go into a database to help map out otter occupancy across the region".
The Two Oceans Aquarium in the Western Cape is also committed to raising awareness.
"Currently, the V&A Waterfront, through its Marine Wildlife Management Programme together with the Two Oceans Aquarium and its Foundation, is doing amazing work to raise awareness around Cape clawless otters and to develop initiatives to limit human-otter interactions in the Waterfront as much as possible," the aquarium commented.
Otters Way Home is available at select stores across the Cape peninsula and also directly from iCWild, who supported the original PhD research and the printing of the book.
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