When a team from an animal rescue organization arrives at a dried-up pond, all they can see is a gray lump protruding from the thick mud. But as the bulge heaves, they realize that the thing before them is a baby hippo trying to find its feet. And as it struggles in the sludge, it becomes clear that its time is running out.
In 1977 the family of the naturalist David Sheldrick established The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT). They were passionate about Kenya’s wildlife and vowed to safeguard the country’s natural environment and animals. As part of its work, the organization is famous for helping orphaned creatures.
So when the DSWT team learned of the stranded hippo, they knew that they had to help. As a result, they set off for the Kiunga Forest along with staff from the Kenya Wildlife Service. And when they got there, it was clear to see that the creature was in great peril.
So how did the DSWT hear of the hippo? Well, on December 22, 2016, a group of passengers were enjoying a flight over the Kenyan coast. And as they gazed down at the landscape below they spotted something unusual. There, hundreds of feet below, they could see a baby hippo stuck in a dried-up pond.
The passengers subsequently reported the sighting to local conservationists, who decided to monitor the animal over the coming days to determine whether it was an orphan. When no adult returned to save the stranded baby, they contacted the DSWT.
“It was quite obviously bogged in mud and was surrounded by flapping catfish in the drying mud hole,” read a statement posted on the DSWT website in February 2017. “It was evident that without intervention, it was going to die.”
However, rescuing the hippo would be quite a challenge, as the Kiunga Forest is in a remote part of Kenya. So before the rescue could even begin, a helicopter pilot had to fly in extra help. All the while, vital time was slipping away.
When the rescue team arrived, they could finally get to work retrieving the baby. Dr. Ngoroge, a vet who was accompanying the group, readied a tranquilizer dart. Meanwhile, the other rescuers waded through the knee-deep mud and stretched out a net.
Thanks to their team effort, the rescuers soon captured the hippo. It was around this time that they decided to name him Humphrey. But after later discovering that the calf was actually a girl, they rechristened her Humphretta, also to be known as “Humpty.”
Once they reached dry land, the team transported Humpty to the nearby helicopter. Before she could embark on her journey, rescuers hosed her down so that her skin stayed moist on the flight. However, they hadn’t anticipated that the hippo wouldn’t fit on the small helicopter.
“The baby hippo had to be parceled up and slung from beneath the helicopter for the short ten-minute flight,” the DSWT statement explained. “Thankfully, however, by this time, the tranquilizer 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.”
After another plane journey, Humpty arrived at the DSWT’s center in Kaluku. Once there, staff washed the dried mud off her sunburned skin. They also gave her plenty of fluids to combat her severe dehydration. In fact, she was the first orphaned hippo that the organization had ever taken in.
Inevitably, they did run into some obstacles while getting used to caring for such an animal. For instance, hippos have a valve in their throats and nostrils that closes to prevent them breathing in water. So, at first, the team struggled to feed Humpty enough milk. However, she soon began to settle in.
“A new Hippo Keeper was recruited and Humpty very soon became hooked on both her Keeper and [Field Operations Manager] Frans, needing the close presence of one or the other at all times,” the DSWT revealed. “She now follows them everywhere and has become exceptionally tame.”
Since she was the first hippo at Kaluku, staff at the center had to modify Humpty’s surroundings. So they designed a custom-made pool, which would be big enough for the calf when she grew up. However, the hippo loved her pool so much that she’d often refuse to get out.
“She loves her new pool, but can be obstinate at night when she refuses to leave the pool to be safely put away,” the DSWT statement revealed. “Humpty very much has a mind of her own. Given half a chance chooses to stay in her pond until well after dark.”
When she’s not cooling off in her pool, though, Humpty loves to cozy up to her keepers Frans and Joseph. Each night she sleeps in specially designed sleeping quarters alongside Joseph. However, she seems to have a special soft spot for Frans.
“Given half a chance, [Humpty] chooses to stay in her pond until well after dark until she sees Frans walk to his bedroom,” the DSWT statement explained. “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.”
“She is extremely loving, relishing close contact with those she knows and loves, and is thriving at Kaluku,” the statement added. “[She’s] 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.”
When Humpty is fully grown, the DSWT hopes to release her back into the wild. Near to their Kaluku base lies the Athi River – a haven for wild hippos. And luckily for her, the sanctuary will be so close that she can pop back to see her beloved Fran and Joseph any time she wants to.