Emergency conservation efforts save Botswana hippos (INTERVIEW)

Emergency conservation efforts save Botswana hippos
Hippos at the created water hole in Botswana, credit: Save Wildlife Conservation Fund

The Okavango Delta region in Botswana experienced severe drought conditions throughout 2023, leaving many water sources dry and stranding large numbers of hippos.

Over 170 hippos became stuck in a shrinking lagoon near a rural village after the annual floods from the Okavango River failed to arrive last year. 

In June, a team from SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund stepped in to prevent a catastrophe. They activated an existing borehole with a solar-powered pump to provide a steady water supply to the distressed hippos.

They also established a camp to monitor the hippos daily and begin supplementary feeding efforts. While some rainfall in December and January of this year allowed natural grasses to regrow, the region saw almost no rain in the critical wet season months of February and March.

Water levels in the lagoon continued to drop dangerously low. SAVE worked with government wildlife officials to construct a new waterhole next to the original. 

They will pump water in the hole continuously for at least the next few months as the herds, now numbering over 200 hippos, remain entirely dependent on artificial water sources. SAVE hopes the long-delayed Okavango floods will arrive within the next 2-3 months to end the crisis.

We talked to Lars Gorschlüter, co-founder of SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund about the hippos in Botswana.

What has led to this situation for the hippos in Botswana?

The Okavango River will flow down to these areas. Last year, the whole year of 2023, no water reached this lagoon where the hippos are. So that’s why the water left in the lagoon from previous years is getting less and less. And yeah, the hippos get stuck in a very small pond. 

We started our actions in June 2023. So, we had a lot of experience from our project in 2019 and 2020, when there was a similar situation with hippos. This time, we were well prepared. We knew what to do. So, we activated an existing borehole with a solar pump and some piping,

We created a camp where people can stay to monitor and feed the hippos, control the pump station, and maintain the whole operation. 

So we started to feed the hippos almost every day, depending on the condition of the hippos. Then there was some rain in December and January, which helped us a little bit.

But in February and March, there was not a lot of rain. Usually, it’s a big rainy season. There was no rain, so the water work got drier and drier. And yeah, the situation got worse. 

How did you respond to this crisis?

If the waterhole gets less and less water, it gets more and more muddy. And there’s a lot of danger that the hippos get really stuck inside the water. That they cannot walk out of there. We have not reached that point yet.

But that’s why we created, together with the Department of Wildlife, a new waterhole next to the existing one in order to avoid the situation where they get really stuck in the water itself.

Pumping water is not a long-term solution?

Unfortunately, the rainy season is over. There’s no expected rain to come. The only solution will be if the Okavango River comes back, so the flood is coming. We think it’s very near, around two to three months.

We don’t know how much water will come because of the missing rainfall in Botswana. It might lose a lot of water on the way to the lagoon again. So we don’t 100% know if the water will reach the lagoon. But if not, there might be neighboring ponds where the hippos can walk to.

Are the animals stressed?

There is a lot of stress inside the water, of course, because normally hippos are moving and living in smaller groups. They’re usually not in large groups. So, we try to feed the family groups individually. They don’t come at the same time to the same place for feeding.

But of course, there’s a lot of stress in the water. I mean, if you look at the size of the water and the population of hippos, there’s a lot of trouble.

What do you feed them?

Mostly, it’s lucerne or grass, whatever is available. So that’s also a problem. And not only do we have a problem with feeding, but farmers do too. Everyone has a feeding problem because there was no rain, so no grass is growing in the area at all. So there’s a lot of pressure on everyone.

Where does the water come from?

It’s a water borehole. You drill a hole. I think it’s about 45 meters deep. And there’s a lot of water underneath the soil. We give the water to hippos and farm animals in the area. They get their own water supplies from there.

When we finish the program, we will donate the solar pumps and all the pump stations to the communities.

Why do you think the hippos don’t move to areas with more water and food?

I think it’s a mixture. On one side, the bigger issue is that there aren’t a lot of waterholes carrying water. And the risk of walking too far and not finding the right place is maybe too high. 

But we already see now that approximately 20 to 30 hippos have already left the waterhole because they are in strong condition. So they’ve already moved out.

But also, I mean, we have a lot of babies—there are baby hippos. A lot of hippos gave birth. So they have young hippos with them, and they might not move too far away from the water.

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