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Searching for Chippo: How experts have been tracking the elusive hippo

Mark McClue steps over a tangle of barbed wire on a patch of weed-infested suburban veld alongside the Jukskei River in Chartwell, north of Jo’burg. 

“Can you imagine how much of a nightmare this is for the hippo,” says McClue, with a scowl. “I would hate for him to get stuck in this and it’s pretty likely he was in this area to get to the river.” 

These hazards in the animal’s path are more of a reason for Jo’burg’s wandering hippo to be in safekeeping “rather than the fear of what it could do”, he says.

In recent weeks, McClue, of Action for Responsible Management of Our Rivers (Armour), and Werner Bester, of Specialised Security Services, have built a tight-knit team to monitor the hippo they’ve dubbed “Chippo”. 

The many hippo sightings

The group share information about confirmed sightings and are trying to piece together a map of the elusive animal’s movements. 

McClue, who lives in Chartwell, says he received a call from a fellow resident on 29 December, reporting that there was a hippo munching on his lawn. “He said to me: ‘Mark, you’re on the Chartwell conservancy, you’re on Armour, and you do search and rescue.’ I asked him why. He said, ‘Well, there’s a hippo on our lawn.’ 

“I asked him if he was sure and he told me I must look at the pictures he had sent me. We went to the property, and there the hippo was, chowing on the grass.” 

It’s here, at the confluence of the Klein Jukskei and the main Jukskei River, that there was a confirmed hippo sighting on 30 December. There was another sighting of a hippo on 21 January in Northern Farm.

Following the tracks

“You see there,” says McClue, gesturing towards a muddy riverbank. “There was spoor over there, in the mud and on a sandbank. We found where the hippo came back down to the river … There are countless, awesome places for a hippo to live and hide along here.”

McClue, who has kayaked the Jukskei for years, is amazed by Chippo’s ability to negotiate obstacles. 

“From here to Chartwell, where it was seen on 29 December, it’s about 7km or 8km of river. Where we found it in Chartwell (on the resident’s property) was above two big weirs of 5.7m.”

Bester is leading a task team set up by specialist investigator Mike Bolhuis to protect Hartbeespoort Dam’s celebrity resident, Harpo the hippo

It’s not clear if Harpo and Chippo are the same hippo, says Bester. “My job is to get knowledge of where the hippo is and to get a network going. The banks from the Crocodile River down to the Jukskei, it’s almost a 70km² area, which zigzags immensely.” 

In addition to public hysteria about the hippo’s presence, sifting through fake sightings swallows time and resources, McClue says. 

Bester agrees. “The biggest issue is to find reliable people giving true, exact information immediately. At this point, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to get publicity. That is messing with our genuine concern for the hippo, as well as for human beings.”

There may be more than one hippo in the area, Bester says. “There have been confirmed sightings throughout 2020 and 2019 along this system and mainly in Hartbeespoort Dam. 

That has brought us to the conclusion we have to be open-minded that there might be multiple hippos in this ecosystem.”

Chippo the hippo around for a while

There have long been hippo sightings in the north of Jo’burg, McClue adds. “There’s quite a lot of people who know this hippo. If you start going back, then we have photos of it in a dam here, and there were sightings in the Rhenosterspruit reserve.” 

“He or she or they have been around for a while, keeping a low profile,” quips Lynne Clark, of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa’s northern areas branch. She says she used to walk along this river stretch in Chartwell with other parents. “We knew there was a hippo who used to come here. He used to turn up sometimes at one of the dams at Northern Farm.”

Nozipho Hlabangana, the spokesperson for the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development, says it is working with its North West counterparts, as the hippo most likely originated there, and with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). 

The department says it is “exploring the most appropriate strategy of mitigating risk of danger of the animal to human life”.

The EWT is using a drone to detect and monitor the hippo and to investigate reports of sightings. Constant Hoogstad, a senior manager at the EWT, says he took photos of a hippo in Northern Farm last week. 

“To clarify this, the hippo has been around for quite a while and the reality is nobody really knows whether hippo A is hippo B, or whether hippo B is hippo C, or hippo C is hippo A. We did manage to find a hippo in Northern Farm, in one of the dams there, but it’s been up and down there for the last six years,” Hoogstad says.

Whether the hippo that’s in Northern Farm is the same animal that visited Chartwell is impossible to tell for now. “We want to make sure [the hippos are] safe in the areas they’re moving in. If they go into areas of potential conflict then we need to intervene,” Hoogstad says.

In Olievenhoutbosch, residents have been raising alarms about a hippo in their midst for years. “They’ve been living with the hippo. They’ve known it’s been around, that it walks around at night, but nobody really bothers with it. But the moment it walks into Chartwell, everyone is up in arms,” Hoogstad says.

He stresses that there is no real reason for concern or panic, because the hippo has been around for a while. “We just don’t want the public to do stupid things — like to walk up to the hippo and take a selfie.”

The hippo is not the problem, says Bester. “Since development has invaded the hippo’s natural habitat, we have to take responsibility for not just the inhabitants’ safety, but all the animals within this habitat.”

Education and awareness 

Up until the sighting in Chartwell, anyone driving in the area would have driven straight into the hippo “because they would never think it would be a hippo”, says McClue. 

“It crossed Third Road bridge in Chartwell at night — we saw the footprints. We think this is an effective way to slow people down on this road if we put a warning saying, ‘hippos crossing’,” he smiles.

The hippo’s presence shows there is life in the polluted Jukskei River system. “It’s an ecosystem. Everyone thinks we’ve got a sewage-infested, dead river, but it has a hippo in it,” McClue says. 

“The fact that the hippo is there means it’s happy … I can tell you, of all the years I’ve paddled this river, I’ve seen leopard spoor, giraffe, wildebeest and kudu.”

McClue is grateful to the community of volunteers who regularly clean up the Jukskei River, “because it’s one less piece of rubbish that this hippo or these hippos have to deal with”.

These clean-ups encourage residents to be more respectful of the environment and its water sources. “I can’t think of a better way for people to understand this story than through this hippo,” McClue says.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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