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The Unnerving Delight of Sharing a Lawn with a Full-Grown Female Hippo

I have seen many strange sights in my travels around Africa. Once in Kenya’s Aberdare Mountains, I chanced across a pure black, melanistic leopard. It melted into the mist before I could raise my camera.

In the vast desert wastes that have to be traversed to get to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, we often encountered Samburu and Turkana tribespeople walking naked through the desert in the midday sun miles from anywhere. Sometimes they would have a blanket loosely draped over one shoulder, perhaps a small leather apron, seldom would they have any footwear.

One young girl of about 10 flagged us down two hours out of Loiyangalani. She was walking with her grandfather. She asked for water and for a lift to Loiyangalani. We gave them water, then explained they could sit on the roof as there was no room below in our two-seater Land Rover. They climbed up, the old man’s penis flapping from side to side. He sat down with it resting extended on the top of a baking hot metal trunk. He seemed not to notice, and we felt it might be impolite to point out his obvious pain, so left it at that and drove north.

There have been many other strange sights: flies on Lake Victoria forming clouds so dense it became hard to breathe; bicycles carrying anything from live pigs to motor bikes; exploding balls of fire from an electrical storm; a wall of water three metres high moving down a dry river bed in the Namib Desert after a cloudburst way over the horizon; in Malawi, I have seen elephants swimming the Shire River, with nothing but the tips of their trunks visible as they used them as snorkels.

But there was little that could prepare us for the sight that greeted us when we drove up to the main farm house at Chimfunshi between Solwezi and Chingola just where Zambia meets the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the upper reaches of the Kafue River. A one ton hippo lay snoozing outside the kitchen while a peacock paraded in front of her, fanning its tail to attract the attention of the peahen pecking in front of the hippo’s nose.

Every now and then, the hippo would open one jaundiced eye, peer at the peacock and at us, and then doze off again. This was somewhat alarming, as it is a well-documented fact that hippos are the meanest, nastiest and most dangerous creatures on the African continent.

A tiny woman emerged from the farm house. This is Sheila Siddle, who at just on five feet tall, was only a fraction taller than my nine-year-old daughter. Billy the hippo was brought to Sheila and her late husband, David, 16 years ago. She had been discovered as a 10-day-old baby by game rangers who found her on the banks of the Kafue under the body of her mother, who had been speared to death by poachers.

By then, David and Sheila’s cattle farm had gained something of a reputation for being a haven for orphaned wildlife since a severely wounded chimpanzee, who they were to nickname “Pal”, was brought to them in 1983. And, like Topsy (and Billy), it all just grew and grew, until today the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage is home to 124 chimpanzees from all over the world, more than a dozen rescued African grey parrots, an orphaned dik dik and assorted other species of small game.

Two 250 hectare, one 75ha and one 125ha enclosures have been set aside to give the chimps as wild a life as possible, although they will more than likely never go back into the bush – some have been rescued from zoos and circuses, others from bush meat traders, and few have any bush experience.

But Billy – she was named after one of her rescuers before they’d worked out her sex – can’t get used to the fact that she is now all grown up and a menace to society. She spent the first few years of her life sleeping on the Siddle’s leather couch, eventually destroying it completely. Now Sheila has had to barricade every door into the house to stop Billy from moving in at night and cuddling up to her.

“It’s such a shame, she is so lonely because the poachers have shot out all the hippo in this section of the river, so she wants human company, but she is still a wild animal, and unpredictable, so we have to be damn careful.”

And that, for me, will always be one of my most enduring, and endearing, memories of our magical month in Zambia: driving out of Chimfunshi, diminutive Sheila and her only slightly taller daughter Sylvia, waving goodbye as Billy the hippo snored on the grass, Ozzy the vervet monkey perched on Sheila’s shoulder, and a cacophany of chimpanzees echoed through the bushveld air.

Article by Tony Weaver. Cape Times. August 15, 2008

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