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  • Kev Thomas Writes

A Hippo Memory


Above: The only effective shot to use on a hippo in the water, is either a frontal brain or side brain shot. For most of the hippo control work I'd do in later years I found using a 300gr solid in my .375 H&H adequate.


During early 1968 I gained my first exposure to shooting a hippo, albeit in a rather unusual manner, and the task certainly wasn’t one I relished doing. In those days I was a young 17-year old cadet game ranger in the Rhodesian Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management. My first posting was to Chipinda Pools field station on the north-eastern boundary of the Gonarezhou National Park. At the time it was yet to be gazetted a National Park, although the scattering of Shangaan tribal peoples who’d been inhabiting this vast 1700sq km landmass had already been moved out of what would become the park. Poaching in the area had always been an ongoing problem with ¼” cable stolen from South Africa’s gold mines, used as snares, which were the biggest killers of game.


One of our anti-poaching patrols took us down into the Marumbini area where the confluence of those two great rivers, the Sabi and Lundi lies (Following Zimbabwe’s independence both rivers underwent a name change to Save and Runde). Our entry into the area took us south east from Chipinda Pools into the vicinity of Tomborharta Pan, and on down to the junction itself. We set up a patrol base in the shade of some huge trees on the banks of the Lundi River. John Osborne (deceased), the senior ranger from Chipinda was accompanying me, and we were travelling in two Land Rovers.


During the early afternoon Osborne and myself accompanied by four game scouts conducted a foot patrol upriver. We patrolled towards the foot of the gorge where there was a deep, wide, and slow flowing pool, occupied by a fairly big population of hippo. A maze of hippo tracks crisscrossed the sand and led inland away from the river, to their nocturnal grazing areas. Hippo were often the target of poachers from the tribal area on the east bank of the river. They’d cross over and lay snares on the game trails leading out of the Gonarezhou and down to the water.


Well before we reached the actual foot of the gorge, we removed our boots. And then, mindful of crocodiles waded across the wide sandy river where it was made up of a series of small reed bound islands and meandering streams. The deepest reaching to just above our thighs. Once on the east bank we walked north towards the gorge passing Shangaan tribesmen tending livestock, or going to fish. All of them gave us sullen stares or averted their eyes. With the forced removals of their kinsfolk from the Gonarezhou, game department personnel weren’t exactly popular at that time in Rhodesia’s history. A few months later one of our game scouts, Tivani, would be beaten to within an inch of his life and horrifically burned by a notorious poacher, not 300m from where we’d passed by.


At the foot of the gorge we found a path leading up into the burnished rocks which eventually become the virtually sheer rock wall towering high above the river, on the eastern bank. Our arrival hadn’t gone unobserved from the water below us, and the hippo pod began to grunt and bellow in curiosity. Almost immediately the noise began resonating and echoing off the gorge walls. Further upstream, a fish eagle too, called from its perch on a protruding tree. The call of the fish eagle, like hippo noises are a true signature sound of Africa’s riverways.


Once we’d found a comfortable observation point, we sat down and using our binoculars began to glass the hippo below us. They were still nervous, grunting and constantly submerging. Or noisily resurfacing in a welter of bubbles and foaming water, accompanied by lots of blowing and tail flicking. Off to one side of the main group, a hippo lay in the water with just its head and part of its back visual. It wasn’t submerging and resurfacing, or making any form of noise like the others were. After closer observation with our binoculars we soon saw why.


Deeply imbedded between its knobbly eyes and its ears, was a cable snare. It’d cut right through the skin and was hardly visible, the wound caused by the snare was raw and full of proud flesh. Rotten and gangrenous. With the cable snare tight around the head it was probable the hippo, a female, was no longer able to eat due to the damage beneath her lower jaw. Hippos walk with their heavy heads close to the ground, and fall easy prey to a cable snare hung in an open loop between two trees. And then during the struggle to free itself the animal’s sheer strength invariably leads to the cable cutting deeply into the flesh, before snapping at the anchor point on the tree.


Osborne made a quick decision. The hippo needed to be put down as with its ongoing suffering, death would probably be slow and lingering. He tasked me with shooting it. All part of my ongoing training as a still wet behind the ear’s cadet game ranger. From where we were it would’ve been impossible to get a bullet into the hippo; the angles were all wrong for a telling brain shot which is the only effective shot on offer when a hippo is in the water. She was also too far away from us. With this in mind, I took my .375 H&H and with game scout Tivani, began the steep climb up through some incredibly thick entanglements of bush towards the top of the gorge. My intention was to try and get above the hippo and then shoot at a slight angle down onto her.


We hadn’t quite reached the top when I saw a strangler fig tree which looked like it might be the ideal aid to assisting me in my task. More importantly, it was situated almost directly above where the injured hippo cow was lying in the water. It was an old mature tree, its yellow root system spread out and clinging like gigantic octopus tentacles across a large part of the rock face. The boll was thick and for portion of its length, grew outwards horizontally from the side of the gorge, before curving away at a vertical angle towards the leafed canopy. When we reached the tree, I looked down at the water far below us and felt a bit nauseous, but knew that if I straddled the boll, locked my ankles underneath it and used a fork in the one branch as a rest; I’d be able to get a killing shot into the suffering hippo.


Game scout Tivani was watching me closely, and when I made my intentions known, he placed an open palm over his mouth in typical African fashion and exclaimed, ‘Ah, Ah, Ah!’ He then informed me if I persisted with my plan, I’d surely fall into the river below and die. Ignoring his disquiet, I gingerly worked my way onto the boll of the tree and with my legs hanging down either side, butt shuffled towards where the tree trunk curved upwards. The bark was somewhat slippery and smooth, so I held the rifle horizontally and at a right angle across the boll in front of me. And then leaning forward shifted the rifle as far as I could to my front, before once more shuffling the rest of my body towards my outstretched arms bearing down on the rifle. It was painstakingly slow and I dared not look down directly under the tree for fear I’d freeze.


Eventually, I reached the curve of the tree trunk and once I’d settled down, I wrapped my legs round the tree and locked my ankles together then pushed the rifle onto a natural rest formed by a branch. And then with my left hand cushioning the rifle from resting directly against the branch, settled the butt into my shoulder and looking along the iron sights slowly scanned the water surface below. And also, beyond where I was perched.


The hippo was in the same place, an ugly bit of rusty cable sticking up out the water near her one ear, and after carefully aiming I was able to put a solid 300gr bullet directly into her brain. Her immediate reaction was to attempt to lift her head back, open her mouth slightly, and then slip backwards beneath the surface, disappearing from view. In the years ahead when I was doing a lot of problem hippo control, because of the extensive crop damage caused by them in sugarcane and young papaya plantations, I’d soon learn on a side, frontal, or rear brain shot, when the hippo is in the water, the reaction described above is indicative of instant death.


With the noise of the shot still reverberating around the gorge the hippo pod came alive by way of angry bellowing. Looking down from my lofty perch all I could see below me was a moving mass of grey and pink tinged bodies, diving and surfacing while swimming around in circles. If I’d tumbled out of the tree and crashed into the river my chances of survival wouldn’t have been very good. Most of the hippos were between me and the safety of the sandbars lower downstream. And the gorge wall was sheer and smooth, not to mention the big crocs we’d seen lurking on the surface beyond the hippo pod.


Very slowly, I worked my way backwards along the tree trunk and when close to solid ground leaned back and handed Tivani my .375. He then grasped my hand and helped me off the tree. After we’d made our way back to John Osborne, we sat and waited for the hippo to surface, which happened after about forty-five minutes. Not having a boat there was little that we could do but wait for the current to hopefully bring the bobbing cadaver downstream towards us. While waiting for this to happen we observed a number of crocodiles suddenly converge on the dead hippo and proceed to try and bite the bloated stomach. It was this persistent croc activity that slowly pushed the hippo away from the sheer gorge wall, and out towards the centre of the main pool where the thrust of the current became more effective. Each time a croc tried to bite the stomach; it merely scooted the hippo further out across the water surface. A bit like snatching at an inflated balloon in a swimming pool.


After nearly two more hours it finally began to look as if we’d be able to recover the dead hippo although the river drama hadn’t yet fully played itself out. As we continued to observe the crocs worrying the hippo carcass, a hippo bull suddenly surged away from the rest of the pod and creating a foaming bow wave, charged towards the crocs which immediately submerged and disappeared. The bull then remained near the dead cow and seemed rather agitated, slowly following her drifting form towards where we were gathered on sand spit in the mouth of the gorge.


Eventually the dead hippo’s lower submerged half lodged on the riverbed beneath the surface, although it took a few rifle shots fired into the sky to chase off the protective herd bull. He’d actually arrived with her cadaver in close proximity to us, and stood belly deep in the shallows glaring at us. At the shots, he spun round and charged back to deeper water, creating waves all around him as he rushed back towards his pod.


Myself and the game scouts then entered the water while Osborne kept ‘croc watch’ on the sandbar. We went onto the upstream side of the hippo and after a lot of pushing and heaving, moved it into even shallower knee-deep water. It was then the hard work began, because we had to butcher the animal and remove the meat and skin. Leaving it there would’ve merely given the tribal poaching element further incentive. While the game scouts were cutting the hippo up in the knee deep shallows, and because of the croc threat, John Osborne and I took turns keeping watch, while the other walked back to camp to collect our respective vehicles, which we then drove down onto the sand and as close to the butchering operation as we could get.


While cutting up the hippo we witnessed another interesting behaviour pattern by the dead animal’s colleagues. While we worked about five hippos from the pod slowly moved towards us, until they were actually all standing chest deep in the water watching us cut up and carry the meat and hide of their deceased family member to our vehicles. It was uncanny because they were absolutely silent, and like elephant. As if aware of, and acknowledging death, while standing in a sort of semi-circle facing us. Not unlike sentinels in mourning. When we eventually departed the scene, we stopped some distance away and sat observing. By then the hippos had moved into the shallows and were standing amidst the gore and discarded offal we’d left behind, before once more slowly returning back to their daytime refuge of deeper water.


Above: During the hours of daylight hippo use water as their refuge, only venturing out under cover of darkness to wander as far as 10km inland (and even further in times of severe drought) in search of grazing.

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