Saturday, September 20, 2008

From: KZN Wildlife News Desk

Hippo Management

July 23, 2008;

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) is the provincial agency mandated to manage nature/biodiversity conservation within the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is an agency that has a proud record of dedication to this purpose stretching back more than fifty years. The organization and its staff have come to realize that this mandate can produce situations that call for hard decisions and drastic action - usually with regard to situations involving actual or potential conflict between large and potentially dangerous game and humans.

EKZNW has a very clear policy for dealing with problem animals and in particularly large and potentially dangerous game such as hippos. If such an animal cannot be driven back to its home range or captured it is destroyed before it becomes a threat to human life. From the very early days of this saga our staff monitored "the Verulam hippo" and its movements. It did not once present a safe opportunity either to catch or destroy it. There is also no explanation as to why hippos roam in this way - although a likely reason is that the animal had been evicted from its home range by a stronger herd bull. There is currently no viable way of preventing this sort of movement by hippos seeing as they usually move along waterways which are almost impossible to fence.

Our experience with roaming hippos is such that we know it is wise to leave the animal alone as much as possible until it chooses a direction of travel. This animal, after being harassed at Ballito sought refuge north of Tinley Manor in very dense bush so thick that it was not safe to track it. We did in fact state at the time that we hoped that it would carry on northwards and return to its place of origin.

EKZNW staff monitored the animal's movements constantly and had our game capture staff evaluating the situation both from the air and on the ground. These are men who are arguably amongst the most experienced in the game capture field in Africa if not globally –– and have an internationally acclaimed track record. Our experience in dealing with hippos goes back a long way indeed and over many years a great many methods of catching hippos have been tried with indifferent success. Using dart-injected drugs is seldom successful because the moment the dart hits the animal it flees to water which is its natural refuge. There the drug takes effect, the animal lapses into unconsciousness and drowns before it can be hauled out. In addition, there is, at this time, no safe, tried and tested immobilising drug combination that is effective on hippos. Using the drug combinations that makes rhino capture extremely successful places the life of the hippo at risk through its physical reaction to these drugs.

The other, more successful method is by passive capture which only works for animals already settled in an enclosed body of water like a small pan or dam. This involves erecting an electrified fence around the pan, and putting up a massively built steel enclosure with a trap door at the entrance. Lucern and hay is placed inside the trap and as the animals consume the natural fodder around the pan they begin to feed into the trap. It can take weeks before the animals venture into the trap and the door can be triggered. This does not work for a roaming single animal and certainly was not appropriate in the situation involving the ""Verulam hippo" that was in a river impossible to seal off.

A hippo is not an animal to be trifled with and of all the big game animals of Africa it has the reputation for causing the most human deaths. It must also be understood that this animal was in a very stressful and foreign environment. Hippos do enter the sea occasionally but not willingly and at Ballito this animal certainly was not surfing as many media reports indicated, and which gave the impression that the animal was having fun. This animal was being harassed by people, dogs, vehicles and aircraft, disturbances which ( in their protected area environment) they are normally not exposed to. Under these conditions hippos become very unpredictable, irritable and extremely dangerous. It is also highly unlikely that anyone who has no experience in hippo capture nor has access to heavy enough and appropriate equipment will succeed in catching one. An amateur capture operation will not only place at risk the lives of those directly involved but also those of innocent people in the vicinity. Such an attempt is also quite likely to have a seriously negative environmental impact on the area in which the capture is attempted. We are, after all, talking about an animal that weighs up to one and half tonnes, is immensely powerful, fast, very aggressive and is armed with a fearful array of tusks which it has no compunction about using.
At no stage was capture a viable option in the case of the ""Verulam hippo", and EKZNW took the decision some time ago to destroy the animal before human lives were further threatened. It moved into a settled area at Verulam before this decision could be implemented. When the animal moved onto eThekweni Municipality land management of the situation passed to the eThekweni Municipality although EKZNW did agree to advise and support them where necessary. The eThekweni Municipality appointed a professional hunter to destroy the hippo and was also responsible for disposing of the carcase which was buried in one of the municipal dumps.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife sent two experienced members of staff as observers and as a back-up. Three shots from heavy calibre rifles were fired at the hippo which ran about 40 metres and disappeared into the river. A search using spotlights showed no sign of the animal which in itself was an indication that the animal was dead. Had it been wounded it would have been visible. At dawn the carcase of the animal was found at the same spot at which it had entered the river. This indicated that it had died within minutes of being shot. It was later found that one bullet had hit the animal in the heart. It is not uncommon for large animals to run a short distance after being heart-shot.
Critics might well say that EKZNW did not explore enough options but it must be understood that to begin experimenting with capture techniques when a large, powerful and aggressive animal is in the midst of a human settlement is not wise practice. It is also necessary to evaluate the physical impact of these operations on the immediate environment. The EKZNW Game Capture Unit has a long history of innovation with regard to animal capture and has been experimenting with various methods of catching hippos for many years. To date the most successful method has been passive capture with its attendant limitations.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has received numerous emails and other messages from concerned citizens about this incident, and many opinions have been expressed in the various media. While the organisation appreciates the concern felt by the public, and respects people's right to express opinion, it must be emphasized that decisions taken in such situations are backed by knowledge, experience and understanding gained from similar occasions over time. EKZNW regrets that it was necessary to destroy this animal but does remind people that the organisation has a responsibility to the broader community in such circumstances.

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