/ 4 October 2022

Hippo pair caught after six months on the run in Mpumalanga

Whatsapp Image 2022 10 04 At 4.27.02 Pm
‘Jumbo and Jackie’ thwarted several capture attempts before they were finally apprehended and rehomed. Photos: supplied.

After months of evading capture, two “vagrant” hippos — Jumbo and Jackie — who had been roaming parts of Mpumalanga have finally been caught and relocated to a secret, safer habitat. 

Last week, officials from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) successfully captured the notorious pair, who had been rambling between Middelburg and eMalahleni.

According to the MTPA, Jumbo, the bull, and Jackie, the cow, had been in the area for the last six months, frequently moving between dams and rivers from Witbank North to Kriel on the Mpumalanga Highveld

“We’ve never put this type of operation into place in a place like Witbank — this is a Lowveld species,” explained MTPA scientist Francois Roux. “And nobody really captures hippos in South Africa, it’s just too expensive. 

“It was a collaboration between ourselves and private business people. We had to do something because they [the hippos] were becoming a danger to humans and for themselves. We did this for the sake of the animals and to show that we still have the heart and the capacity to do things like this,” he said.

Settling in farm dams

The hippos were first reported in a farm dam on 9 March between Stoffberg and Middelburg. The MTPA confirmed their presence through photos and conducted an onsite visit.

From then on, regular reports were received of the two hippos and their movements from concerned members of the public. “Numerous people in the area were surprised, and sometimes frightened, especially at night at seeing hippos walking on the farm roads and then seeing them the next day settled in a farm dam,” the MTPA said. 

Reports were received from a mine in the Kriel area of “someone being injured after being bitten by a hippo”, but this couldn’t be confirmed. At some stage, the presence of three hippos was reported in the area but this, too, could not be confirmed, with recent sightings confirming only the two hippos.

In June, the hippos settled in a large farm dam close to the Kromdraai Colliery near eMalahleni. A decision was taken to attempt to capture them to avoid human-wildlife conflict and move them safely elsewhere. 

Thwarted attempt

The MTPA’s wildlife management unit and scientific services unit, tried to capture them by darting them using chemical immobilisation. “However, during this attempt the hippo bull attacked the boat, biting holes into the hull, which nearly sank the boat, giving the capture team quite a fright.” 

After this failed attempt, a strategy was implemented through collaboration with private companies in the eMalahleni area to start monitoring and feeding the hippos to habituate them. 

“This proved successful to stop their vagrant movements and they settled in a farm dam of Mr Jumbo van der Merwe outside Witbank on the Verena road. 

“Once the hippos were feeding readily on the lucerne provided, three strands of electric fence were erected around the dam to ensure they couldn’t move from the dam.” 

The animals were fed daily with lucerne bales by Piet Wassenaar (of Presidio Security) and his team, under the supervision of MTPA official Gaitjan Sterk. “We couldn’t drive from Nelspruit [Mbombela] every day to go feed them and this success story is through collaboration with [other] people,” Roux said.

Passive capture

With the hippos in place, preparations for passive capture were constructed. This included a strong capture boma with falling door, and a hide to trigger door and cameras to remotely document feeding behaviour. 

In early September, camera observation revealed the hippos were entering the boma to feed on the supplied lucerne. The team then attempted night capture. “Once again this was unsuccessful as it would appear hippos have a sixth sense detecting the presence of the capture team.” 

Then, last week, because of “sheer persistence amid early seasonal rain and lightning”, both hippos were finally captured, loaded into game crates and transported to a safe habitat for relocation. They were slightly sedated to “ensure less stress and for the safety of the animals” during transport. 

Hippos are notorious for travelling long distances when losing the safety of their social herd structures, said Roux. “These animals are, however, dangerous and in the best interest of humans and the animals, the only option was to capture and translocate them to safety.” 

The cooperation and assistance of local businesses was of crucial importance to the success of this operation, the MTPA said, thanking in particular, Piet Wassenaar of Presidio Security; Casper Janse van Rensburg of Midwit Diesel and Oil as well as Louis Botha and Johan Cowen of Genet Mining.