First Hippo Capture (It went horribly wrong)

Hey lovely Hivers

Ooh today have I got a story for you! But first...


Q: Did you know that the Hippo was the ambassador for the chocolate "Chomp" in 1990?

A: Here's the Afrikaans advert in all of it's splendour (the Saffers here should get a kick out of this), it still really bugs me that the dad just eats the whole chocolate and leaves the kid in tears! Not cool dude - not cool!

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Q: How dangerous are hippos really?

A: There are no documented numbers on this that can be verified, however it is safe to assume that hippos - due to their territorial nature kill more people each year than the big 5 in Africa. Considering that they can weigh anything between 1 and 3 tonnes, if they connect you by charging - or sat on you, you would more than likely be tickets.

The reason I'm prefacing this story with this particular question is to give you an idea of what these animals are capable of.

Hippos in a metropolitan area is a stupid idea (my opinion)

In all honesty, I cannot tell you which year this particular hippo capture took place, it was somewhere around 2008/9. The particular reserve that has these hippos is the only one in the metropolitan area with hippos and they breed.

Almost every year a young hippo is displaced by the dominant male ~~affectionately~~ named "Brutus" who was introduced in 1981.

He's been the dominant male there every since and has kept his harem of females, producing offspring reliably every year. The female young tend to be accepted into the family herd while the young males get challenged by Brutus for territory and that's where the trouble starts.

The young males tend to be brutalized by their father and essentially will try to find an escape route to establish their own territory in a safer environment. The trouble with this scenario is that the reserve is landlocked in what is predominantly suburbia with an adjacent section belonging to another nature reserve and a sewerage reticulation plant. This includes large sewerage sludge pans as well as ponds and an outlet to the sea.

So these youngsters become rather problematic. You can't go in there before they are displaced because then you're having to deal with all of the adults, so every year or two a young male will be spotted by either a resident or by a ranger where they are not meant to be. This sometimes includes residential lawns in the area, people's swimming pools, and the sewerage works. Very occasionally the animal in question will find it's way to the adjacent nature reserve which actually makes capture much easier and safer. Of course this is often the minority of the instances (typical Murphy's Law ya'know?).

This hippo calf was no different. He had ended up in the sewerage works which was at least a reprieve for him considering that Brutus would not be trying to murder him anymore, however it certainly was not ideal for the safety of the staff of the compound or the general public as this are was actually open to the public for bird watching etc.

Neither of these two reserves were where I officially was stationed, however when there were projects or operations that needed to be undertaken with more manpower, the managers and rangers of the other reserves would be called upon to assist depending on the requirements.

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The only direction you look while in a hippo waterbody - behind the boat motor!

Difficult Decisions

A decision was taken by management that the young hippo would have to be removed from that location.
Ultimately this kind of scenario is largely misunderstood by the general public and somewhat falls into a grey fringe zone of people-animal conflict resolution (what used to be called problem animal management).

The hippo in that location posed a significant threat to public safety. Why? Because people are generally idiots. If a member of the public had to see a hippo walking on the shore of that area (which was fully accessible to the public) and had to phone that in to a radio station or go viral on social media for example - within the hour the area would be flooded with people wanting to touch, stroke, hunt, ride, feed, - insert your own verb of stupidity here - said hippo.

Most people do not realize that any wild animal has the ability to injure or kill you, immaterial of your particular agenda. If they sense that they are under threat, they will more than likely do what wild animals do - they will defend themselves.

The scenario I've painted above would not have ended well for

  1. The hippo in question
  2. The members of the public
  3. The managers and staff of the reserve
  4. The entire hippo population in the reserve

It would have also been an absolute PR nightmare possibly with legal ramifications as well.

Constant Crisis Management

Managing natural areas in a metropolitan zone is vastly different from that in a larger, more pristine environment. The influx of issues you face is far more varied, more intense, more widespread and can have more severe consequences if not done correctly and with an enormous amount of resilience.

Throwing the management needs of large wild animals into the mix makes it a more volatile cocktail with an extensively expanded set of possible outcomes that you need to consider.

In this particular instance the bottom line was:

The hippo needed to be removed - whether alive or dead.

The Mission

A small team was handpicked by the reserve manager and a PH (professional hunter) was contracted to assist us, he had worked closely with us on various occasions previously and was briefed on the situation. A "plan" was developed and the mission had to be kept completely classified from all staff outside 'the know'. The plan also could not be set in stone as it was so susceptible to change from anywhere - we would have to be fluid in our response with whatever happened.

The plan consisted of recon for however many nights in a row as it would take. This small group would go out and we would drive the roads of the compound and search for the hippo to ascertain where it was foraging, then we would get it darted and remove it from the area when the best possible scenario presented itself.

Etorphine (M99) is a standard tranq used for large game. Every species has it's own requirements for darting and with any kind of tranquilizer, there are inherent risks which need to be taken into account and mitigated for.
The darted animal is then relocated and essentially brought out of the tranquil state once in their new environment using another drug called M50/50.

Unfortunately when it comes to hippo, things become as tricky as they get. Hippo have extremely thick skin and even if you dart one in the best possible location, there is no real way of knowing if the dart administered the tranquilizer into the subcutaneous fat or if it has gone into the blood stream until the effects of the tranquilizer start to show. With hippos this presents a massive problem! As soon as a hippo believes it is being pursued or is under threat, it will seek refuge - in a water body.

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The first few nights we went out, we scanned the roads, we scanned the water - we saw nothing. No signs of the hippo, no tracks, no trace.

After five days of very little sleep and having to commence our normal work duties during the day, we all closely resembled pale zombies. We couldn't take days off as we had to keep the entire operation under wraps and not call attention to anything.

I must say that to this day I am proud of the level of confidentiality that was maintained in our team. Each person did an exceptional job as we also knew what was at stake if the operation was leaked to the general public or the media.

It must have been about the 6th night we got lucky. Penny was driving, I was sitting shotgun with a spotlight out the window. We turned onto a road and saw it dead ahead in-front of the bakkie (essentially a pick up truck). Werner who was on the back of the bakkie with his rifle immediately went to work - sighted, aimed, shot and managed to dart it in the bum. A hippo with a pink fluffy thing sticking out of it's rump is kind of comical for a few seconds - until it starts to run!

The Chase

I can remember it vividly in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Seeing the dart hit it's mark, then Werner shouting "punch it Penny!".

The adrenaline surged as Penny put foot and we were off after it....

Stay tuned for Part II of this crazy hippo capture - the really good stuff, absolutely everything you probably shouldn't do to capture and relocate a hippo.

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All images are my own unless otherwise stated

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Disclaimer: My previous employer has never had a NDA in place preventing my disclosure of these events. These posts are my own personal life stories and experiences as I experienced them.

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