Forever Blowing Bubbles
Hippos thriving in the arid Karoo? Indeed. Belligerent grunts are reverberating in the Seekoei River
Words: Mariëlle Renssen
Pictures: Steve Moseley, Hirsh Aronowitz and Keith Titley
Perhaps the hardships of a farmer’s life in the rain-starved Bo-Karoo are suitable training ground for such a wildly ambitious project, one that’s been many years in the making. To give you an indication, it was in 2000 that PC Ferreira, a sheep farmer outside Hanover in the Northern Cape, initiated the idea of reintroducing hippos to the Seekoei River that snakes through his farm.
A full six years later, after protracted negotiations with the Department of Environment and Nature onservation (DENC), the establishment of farmland as a conservancy, a scientific habitat analysis, and the sourcing and procurement of the hippos, the first of these semi-aquatic mammals blew bubbles in the Seekoei River.
But to start at the beginning. On an 8 000ha property, close to the Karoo town of Hanover in the Northern Cape, are two farms that have been in the Ferreira family for generations — New Holme, managed by PC and his wife Mariska, and Mieliefontein, run by PC’s parents, Ian and Elma.
The Seekoei River (literally translated as ‘sea cow’) runs through the property. It’s a watercourse of 250km, with its source to the south in the Compassberg catchment area, between Richmond and Nieu-Bethesda, from where it makes a lazy meander north to the Vanderkloof Dam (also fed by the mighty Orange, or Gariep), close to Colesberg.
PC Ferreira, harbouring a strong conservation-conscious streak, and having done years of historical research on the Seekoei River, couldn’t shake off the disquiet that, although hard to believe, the river had once vibrated to the snorting of hippos.
The slow slide to their demise is well recorded in diary entries dating back to the mid- and late 1700s by early colonial explorers such as Governor Joachim van Plettenberg and Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon, who pragmatically recorded the shooting of 20 hippos at a time. A 1777 painting by RJ Gordon portrays one such hunting party in full flagrant sway. French explorer François le Vaillant writes at the end of the 18th century about how he fashioned a plate from the foot of a hapless hippo.
In 2000, PC decided to do something about returning hippos to the area. He contacted the DENC, set into motion the legalities to declare his property the Karoo Gariep Conservancy, earmarked a section of the Seekoei River on his farm as suitable hippo habitat, applied for fencing directives from the DENC, and filled in a tsunami of forms. It was a process fraught with delays and frustration. The cogs of bureaucracy, creaking in reverse more times than not, gnawed at PC’s perseverance and tested his unwavering faith in invisible forces guiding the process. It took five years for his farm to be registered as a conservancy. And that was just the start.
The next step was a visit by members of a local agricultural institute and the University of the Free State to do a habitat analysis of New Holme farm for both hippo and buffalo. (PC understood that not all the farmers of the properties surrounding the Seekoei River would support his idea, and needed to look at an income-generation alternative to ostrich, sheep and cattle.
The answer was game farming, involving high-value species such as buffalo and even, eventually, black rhino.) The habitat report was positive.
Now to find the hippos. Talks were held with an organisation bearing the irresistible name Limpopo Damage-causing Animal Forum (yes, it’s for real). DCAs (damage-causing animals) is a term used by wildlife parks, nature reserves and landowners for animals that attack livestock and damage crops and fencing (they can be as small as black-backed jackal and caracal).
In PC’s case, three ‘troublemaker’ hippos had been isolated in the Letaba River, on a farm near Letsitele in Mpumalanga, and were ready for relocation to New Holme. More apt a name you couldn’t find. On the farm was a perfect section of the Seekoei River, lined with dense reeds and marked by a series of pools fed by underground springs; this meant permanent water year-round.
Reams of documentation and the hair-pulling task of organising the capture and transportation of the mammals followed. In December 2006, it was time to bring out the trumpets: two centuries after the last hippo disappeared from the river, belligerent grunts reverberated again in the Seekoei.
Full story available in January edition of Country Life. Purchase back issues online.