Three orphaned hippos have been successfully released back into the wild thanks to the hard work of an Eastern Cape team of rangers and vets. The hippos were found during a severe drought that had dried up much of the river running through the Shamwari Private Game Reserve.
Dr Johan Joubert, the wildlife vet at the reserve, explained that many hippos had ended up in small ponds or mud puddles due to the low rainfall, and many had to walk long distances for food. Three young hippos were orphaned and taken to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre at Shamwari, where they were cared for until they were old enough to survive in the wild.
‘Capturing a hippo in the first place is a mammoth task. Due to their thick skin, hippos are extremely difficult to dart. Even if they are darted, hippos immediately run to the water, where a sedated hippo stands the risk of drowning. This means the safest way to catch a hippo is to wait for it to come to you,’ said Joubert. The operation required several nights of waiting in the dark before capturing the hippos.
Feeding the young hippos was a significant challenge, as they required around 10% of their body weight in milk during their suckling phase. This meant the rehab team had to feed them from buckets instead of bottles to ensure they remained as wild as possible. Joubert added, ‘It’s a major food account at the end of the day. It comes with a cost, but it’s ultimately worth it.’
Keeping the hippos healthy was also a challenge, as they defecate in water, so the team had to develop a dam that could be flushed every few days to prevent the pool from becoming stagnant. Despite the cost and effort involved in rehabilitating the hippos, the reserve staff felt responsible for caring for the young calves too young to survive independently.
The calves have now settled into a reserve dam and formed a herd with six other hippos. According to Joubert, the male calves would likely move off once they reach maturity and join up with other herds along the river to maintain genetic diversity.
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