The Rescue of Humpty the Little Hippo

Published on the 8th of February, 2017

On the 22 December Angela Sheldrick received a report from Lamu from Fuzz Dyer regarding an orphaned hippo that required saving, and plans were put in place to conduct this rescue the following day.

The tiny hippo calf had been first observed from the air stuck in a drying pond within the large remote Kiunga Forest, situated between the ancient port of Lamu and the border with Somalia along the north coast of Kenya. The baby hippo had been observed for a few days in order to ascertain that it was, in fact, an orphan. It was quite obviously bogged in mud and was surrounded by flapping catfish in the drying mud hole and it was evident that without intervention, it was going to die. Given the remoteness and inaccessibility of the area, rescuing this baby certainly presented a challenge, and required additional input from others besides Fuzz Dyer, particularly that of Andrew Francombe and his helicopter who thankfully was in the area at the time.

Meanwhile, on the morning of the 23rd December, the DSWT Rescue Team, comprised of two experienced DSWT Keepers and Dr Njoroge, flew from Nairobi to Kiunga airstrip, landing at around noon, where they were immediately ferried by helicopter to the remote waterhole, which took just over ten minutes. There, another team who had been keeping watch over the calf awaited them.

Dr. Ngoroge prepared the tranquiliser dart, while the rest of the team prepared the net to capture the baby. Undertaking the capture was challenging too in the knee-deep mud, but it did not take long before the calf was restrained, and rolled into the canvas stretcher normally used to rescue the orphaned elephant calves. The little hippo was then wrapped in a blanket and doused with water in order to keep wet for the duration of the flight back to Kiunga airfield. At this point the whole operation became even more challenging, since the baby hippo had to be parcelled up and slung from beneath the Helicopter for the short ten minute flight, there being insufficient space in the aircraft to accommodate it. Thankfully however, by this time, the tranquiliser was taking effect and so, secured to the skids of the Helicopter, the hippo calf was airlifted and flown to the airstrip, landing very gently in order not to damage the calf.

No time was wasted loading the baby into the waiting plane, where two very attentive Keepers prepared her further for the next leg of her journey. The entire Rescue took only around 45 minutes! From the Kiunga airstrip the hippo calf was airlifted to the DSWT Kaluku HQ on the Athi boundary of Tsavo National Park, where it was to be hand-raised by the Trust’s Field Team based there, who were quite familiar raising numerous orphans of varying species over the years, although the baby hippo was a “first” for everyone involved with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Rapidly preparations were underway for the arrival of our latest newcomer, which was initially thought to be male and called “Humphrey” by Daphne. Upon arrival, having been carried off the aircraft still wrapped in the wet blanket and carried in the canvas sling, the baby hippo was brought to the veranda of Frans’s house, Frans being the DSWT Field Operations Manager and who has discovered that he has had to morph into many roles! Being “mother” to a baby hippo was new territory for him, but nevertheless a challenge he was eager to undertake. The baby hippo was carefully unwrapped and got to wobbly feet, after which it was hosed down with water to remove a layer of drying mud from its skin which by now appeared blistered and sunburnt. The calf was obviously desperately dehydrated as well so it was fed rehydration fluids and some milk from a bottle.

For Frans, it was going to be a long first night, Humphrey spending that first night in the bathroom beneath a running shower to keep moist and comfortable. By the following day, a customised stable was completed and shade netting overhung above the Kaluku waterhole, besides which little Humphrey was already showing signs of becoming attached to Frans. It was soon discovered, however, that Humphrey was in fact not a “he”, but a “she” (much to our relief) but by this time, she had already grown used to her name, which was adjusted to “Humphretta” or “Humpty” for short.

A new Hippo Keeper was recruited and Humpty very soon became hooked on both her Keeper and Frans, needing the close presence of one or the other at all times. She now follows them everywhere, and has become exceptionally tame, happy to enjoy the company of all the human DSWT team at Kaluku. She has become the mascot of Kaluku, adored and treasured by all.

Over the following weeks, a larger customised pool has been created for her, deep enough to suffice even when she becomes adult, with a surrounding beach of soft river sand for her to lie on. She loves her new pool, but can be obstinate at night when she refuses to leave the pool to be safely put away in her customised Night Quarters which she shares with Joseph, her Keeper, who sleeps beside her on a bed beneath the necessary mosquito net. Basically, Humpty very much has a mind of her own, and given half a chance chooses to stay in her pond until well after dark until she sees Frans walk to his bedroom separate to the Sitting Room, and then she sits outside, crying to be let inside his bedroom!

Then she lies next to Frans’s bed suckling on his fingers until she falls asleep. Humpty would be content to do this every night, but Frans has managed to break the habit, ensuring that he, too, manages to get some sleep, transferring Humpty instead to the sleeping quarters of Joseph, her full-time Keeper!

The Trust’s Kaluku Field H.Q. is 3 kms. from the Athi River, which is home to numerous wild hippos, so hopefully, in the fullness of time, Humpty will learn to fraternise with them and eventually, once weaned off milk, will join them with the ability to return home to her favoured pond whenever she feels like doing so.

Due to the nature of hippos Humpty has nostrils as well as a valve in her throat which automatically shuts to block any water, (or milk for that matter) getting into her lungs, so she only drinks when she feels like it, which made the first few days difficult but she now loves her milk and is eager to feed! Her days are spent in her pool, or resting up on her beach in the sun, attended by her Keeper, Joseph, but she still walks in an out of Frans’s house, ever eager for his company. She is extremely loving, relishing close contact with those she knows and loves, and is thriving at Kaluku, blissful in her new home with all the creature comforts she could wish for. Safe to say, our little orphan Humpty is an exceptionally spoilt and lucky little baby hippo, thanks to all those who sought to overcome numerous challenges in order to save her.

UPDATE - July 5, 2017:

It is with great sadness that we must share the news that we have lost our beloved hippo, Humpty. She was treated by Kenya Wildlife Service Veterinary Officer Dr. Poghon but later died quite unexpectedly. Sadly, an autopsy revealed that little could have saved Humpty as she had a completely twisted gut, the reasons for which remain a mystery. Read more...