First Hippo Capture (It went horribly wrong) Part II

This is the second part to this story - the first part you can read [here]( (or just not bother and read this one and fill in the blanks with your imagination).

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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....

Anyone who tells you that Hippos don't run well on land - you have my permission to punch them. Hippos run very well on land and can reach speeds of up to 30km/s! Can you run that fast? I can't.

We were off after it in the bakkie and we had to try and prevent it from getting into the water. The water wasn't far away either - it was over the road that we were on, about 12m.

We were hoping to get the bakkie close enough to keep it running parallel to the water, but it wasn't meant to be. The hippo managed to take the plunge and made a bee-line into the water. This wasn't good for a number of reasons.

We didn't know if the tranquilizer had actually penetrated into fat layer or not. We now had no way of easily accessing the hippo to capture it. It was now in the water and a tranqued hippo in the water could lead to the animal drowning. All we could do for the time being was stay on the shore and watch. The lighting wasn't great and even our spots didn't reach the water that well, but we made do with what we had.

Waiting and Watching

It felt like hours passed (it probably wasn't hours) before we noticed any behavioural change in the animal. It started to surface more erratically and seemed to be disorientated. This then turned to a bit more obvious signs of distress and we decided that the tranquilizer had definitely made it's way into it's system.

The problem now was that there was a disoriented hippo in the middle of a sewerage pan (it wasn't a sludge pan but one of the overflow water bodies - it certainly wasn't clean water though).

Between Werner and Penny, the decision to go in after it was taken. We had no boat and that probably wouldn't have been a good idea anyway because we didn't want to startle the hippo and possibly invoke a rage attack so stealth was the better option. We had some tow ropes that we fashioned into a lasso and two of the rangers (Morne and Eben) had full length waders that they kitted up into.

Do not do this next part EVER !

Morne and Eben went wading into the water to get to the hippo.

I have probably never been as scared for a set of colleagues in my life before, not in fires or even dealing with poaching situations. In my mind I was seeing scary images of the worst case scenario and this wasn't helped at all by the high pitched whining sounds I could hear - I remember thinking "what the hell is making that noise?" - It was coming from Eben and I totally understood why too. I would have been doing the same if it was me.

The two bravest (or most stupid of the team) got close enough to the hippo to get the lasso around it's head. It wasn't impressed with this idea, however it was already clearly quite seriously drugged up and out of it as it didn't put up enough of a fight to present any huge danger to the men in the water. They slowly managed to lead it towards the shore line and once it got it's feet on land, it tried to bolt, sort of falling over itself. It was very unsure of it's footing, very dazed and drugged and it kind of stumbled around a bit and then stood there. With the lasso we tried to carefully coax it further out from the shoreline and onto the road. Once we had moved it further onto the road, we needed to try and get something over it's eyes - firstly to stop it from being able to see any of us and charge us and then to calm it down and try to subdue it somewhat.

We searched the vehicle and we came up with a jersey (jumper) and a pillow case (which I had removed from my pillow - you know after night 4 you come better prepared). We figured the jersey would do well to cover it's eyes and the pillow case might be useful in putting over it's mouth.

I can't tell you exactly how this was done, because I didn't want to watch incase it went horribly wrong. The animal was surprisingly non aggressive and didn't go for anyone while the items were secured around it. We even managed to get some additional ropes secured around it.


In hindsight I have to admit that we hadn't planned very far ahead of this point. By now it was probably about midnight and we realized that we didn't have a capture trailer, we didn't have a built boma and there was no way we would be able to move this sized animal on any of our vehicles - we would need a digger loader.

A few radio calls were made to the branch manager and she made the necessary calls to get a digger loader on site, however due to the paperwork required (typical red tape bureaucracy), the emergency requisition would probably only be processed in a good couple of hours. It dawned on us that it was going to be a very long night.

Stay Down Buddy

The next few hours were spent literally keeping the hippo in one place. We essentially had to carefully create a "pile on" where about 10 of us used our body weight to pull the hippo to the ground and get it to lie down, then we kept it there. We did this in shifts, keeping noise to an absolute minimum and every now and again we would swap people out. Arms and feet went numb and some of us even fell asleep in this position, being roused when every so often the animal beneath us would want to change position. Sometimes it would try to get up and at one point it started coming out of it's tranquilized state. This presented a risk and after a few thrashings about, we weren't willing to let it get back to the water so using the lasso ropes, we pulled and urged it in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately this was also a rather dumb move on our part because the hippo then veered off, still blindfolded - in the direction we were pulling, went straight off the road and into the drainage ditch alongside the road, at which time the hippo was re-tranquilized and kept immobile.

Time went on and in the early hours of the morning (must have been somewhere around 4 or 5am), a digger loader arrived. Then operational staff from the sewerage works started to arrive. Then back up reserve staff started to arrive. Then the media turned up.

It was extremely difficult to get the hippo out of the drainage ditch. By this time the hippo was exhausted and we were exhausted too. I felt really bad for the animal by this point, however the entire operational goal was to remove the hippo from that location. If it left the reserve and was able to make a recovery, then it would be released into a private nature reserve far away inland.

It took a lot of manpower to maneuver the hippo out of the ditch, onto the road and then get it secure in the digger loader without incident, but it was accomplished. Unfortunately on the way from this location to where there was an established transitionary boma, the effects of the tranquilizer and the stress overcame the hippo and by the time it arrived, it had unfortunately died.

I went and sat alongside the hippo after it was offloaded. Apart from being physically sore all over my extremities, I felt emotionally drained and immensely sad. I never admitted to anyone that day that before I left, I put my hand on the hippo's face and apologized to it for having failed it. I felt extremely heavy when I left, it was a feeling of helplessness, remorse and grief.

There were about 2 hours before I had to report at my office for a full day's work. Bunkered down on the couch of the student quarters, I had a fitful single hour worth of sleep that was interrupted by numerous mongoose fights taking place on the roof of the house. Needless to say, it was little in the way of rest and the remainder of the day I was subdued and rather unproductive.

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About two days after the capture, I sat down with my mentor and we discussed the operation. We went through what we did accomplish, what we did really poorly, we exchanged notes on future captures and we tried to stay objective, removing the emotion from the situation. Ultimately the goal of the operation was to remove the hippo from the location to prevent possible public liability etc., which we had accomplished, however I still felt (feel) incredibly bad that the hippo didn't make it to be released into another reserve.

Unfortunately it is a risk with any large game and hippos are not as straight forward as other game, the chances of a hippo having a negative reaction to the tranquilization is also much higher (I have assisted with other game capture and relocation eg: Gemsbok, Zebra, Cape Grysbok and Bontebok for example which were all far easier than this).

Looking Back Now

I think that everyone that was there for that capture decided that they never wanted to be that close to a hippo again without any kind of barrier between them and said animal as this whole capture could have resulted in very serious injury or death of any number of the rangers and field crew. We were young and stupid and willing to put our lives on the line to get done what was required.

The day after this hippo capture, Morne came up to me and handed me a piece of material. It was greyish brown, covered with grit and grass and it stank to high heaven. It was my pillowcase. He had removed it from the hippo's face when it was offloaded thinking I might want it back. I appreciated the gesture, but I couldn't bring myself to keep it, it was just a bit too raw for me.

Back To SOP

I had to put on the brave face to my team after this operation, the same way that my mentor (manager) had done with me and removed the emotion from the situation. It was necessary for us all to move forward with the standard operational procedures of day to day work at the reserve, but I still sit with that feeling that we should have done better, planned better and maybe that hippo would have lived a full, happy life in another reserve.

Even though it was a really good example of how NOT to capture and relocate a hippo, we improvised and we achieved the required end result with no loss to human life. We learned from that capture - about hippos and about ourselves. It also cemented our team - a shared experience of perseverance and patience, team work and cohesion over and through the odds and the hours - to meet the required objective.

The hippo was buried at the reserve. The team who captured it stood silently watching, paying our respects as it was lowered into the ground - returning it to the soil of it's birth place where it remains to this day.

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All images are my own unless otherwise stated

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Calvin and Hobbes - Bill Watterson

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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 lived them.

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