Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Catching Hippos

I studied Nature Conservation through Saasveld. Saasveld is in George and was the old forestry collage. It took on other large land management courses, before growing even bigger. When I went there it offered a great Nature Conservation Diploma course.

Part of the course was spent at the collage, but we had two six month practical periods as part of the course. I did my first one at Addo Elephant National Park. It was a great learning experience.

Most of my time at Addo I was posted at a remote ranger's station in the Zuurberg section of the park. In that part of the park Hippos had been released into the Sunday's river. The hippos caused a lot of trouble, getting out of the park frequently.

One hippo had left the park to the south and entered a prison farm (outside the town of Kirkwood.) The Sunday's river went through this prison area. When the hippo was discovered in the area, a fence was put around the section of the river that it was in, and a trap build to catch it.

Catching hippos is problematic! They are a little on the big side, and are known to be very aggressive. One way to catch them is to dart them. But if one wants to dart a hippo, it needs to be chased away from water. If they are sedated in water, they could drown, not to mention the problems of collecting them out of the water.

At this location, chasing around a hippo to get it away from water would present a whole range of problems, mostly the risk it would pose to people and structures.

So it was decided to trap it. About one kilometer of the river had been fenced in, with the hippo inside. Then it was a waiting game. The hippo had to be loured into the trap with bait (grass or some other feed.)

While I worked there, we were getting closer and closer to trying to catch the hippo. But the hippo also got more and more intelligent. We tried many things, but the hippo would eat everything till just outside the trap, and go no further. We even tried to through some very expensive drugs on the bait, to get it to calm down, all to no avail.

They way it worked was that we would have a ranger posted in the area all the time. They would check that the hippo was still there, and how close it was coming to the trap. Then there would be the occasional 'capture' nights, when the whole capture team had to come and camp there, and we would watch the hippo through the night.

The rangers took turns to do the looking. I often got a slot at around two o'clock till four o'clock. I would have to sleep in my tent with the tent open, sleeping bag open, and boots on. And it was cold, very cold. Then we would get up for our shift. We would move to an area just outside the fence, hiding behind bails, and watch for two hours. The hippo often seemed to be watching us back. It was sometimes a little scary being out there.

On one occasion I had heard that a leopard had been seen nearby in the day time. No problem, in the day time. But come three o'clock at night, cold, staring at a hippo in the night I started to think about that leopard. I had a Winchester bolt action .375 h&h magnum rifle (that's a big gun to those who don't know firearms, something with which you could shoot an elephant.)

As I lay there, watching the hippo, most of the sounds were far away. But then a scurrying sound came from nearby. We didn't use flashlights, because it would frighten the hippo, and the capture attempt would be ruined.

The sound grew closer. There was a little moon, but it almost made it worse. I could see a shape moving around. I was kneeling on the ground, keeping myself low down (not to scare the hippo.) From that angle the shape looked remarkably like a.....Leopard!!

Suddenly everything went badly. The shape started to charge strait for me. I stood up, chambered a round in the rifle, and was just about to shoot........

Fortunately I was very slow with the rifle. As it came closer I suddenly saw it was a porcupine. It had been moving along the road, and since I was hiding behind the bails, it had also been surprised by me.

When I stood up it turned and ran into the bush. If I had shot it with the .375 it would have been all over the place. And I don't know what the Addo management would have done with the rookie student?? I did ruin the capture for the night, but that was it.

While I was at Addo we never caught that hippo. It's baby, already a fairly big hippo also left the park. They managed to catch it. I wasn't there that night when they caught it, but did get called to watch the release. That was amazing - after seeing the damage this hippo could cause to the truck, I gained a new respect for these animals.

I don't know the end of the story with the hippo. I loved my time at Addo, and learned a lot from the people there. As a guide now, it is so useful to have seen the other side, conservation on the ground.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Vern nice story I remember when you told it the first time back at Saasveld. Keep the stories comming boet they are great to read...