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Saving the hippos of River Sabaki

Hippos basking in the afternoon sun at River Sabaki in Magarini, Kilifi County. [File, Standard]

Sabaki River estuary and its pool of hippopotamus has over the years been a tourist attraction site for many but there is an underlying frosty relationship between the local community and the beasts.

The scenery is best witnessed from the Sabaki bridge owing to its high elevation affording the eyes to scan far and wide. The magnificent sight of the hippos either relaxing or playing in the brown water adds to the excitement.

Behind the eye-catching sceneries, however, lies sad tales of a deadly confrontation between the hippos and farmers who reside near the estuary.

This has resulted in deaths and injuries on both sides. Many people have lost their lives and some live with physical and psychological scars. Many of the hippos have also been killed by the locals out of anger, and the meat shared out.

The sorry tales have since attracted conservationists keen on restoring the hippo population by teaching the local communities on how best to live alongside the beasts albeit economically.

But before the conservation work began victims of the hippo attack narrated their story with Mr Changawa Kajomba saying he miraculously survived a hippo attack in 2016 that left him with serious thigh injuries.

He said that he was from tiling his farm and was washing at the river bank in the company of his two children when a hippo pounced on him, taking its teeth in one of his thighs.

“I hit its eyes with the elbow making it run away towards the water. I screamed for help and my children came to my rescue before other villagers rushed me to the Malindi Sub County hospital,” he said.

Mrs Sidi Mzungu, a mother of eight, lost her husband Kenga Charo in 2017 when a hippo invaded their compound six kilometers from the river.

“We heard our cattle making noise at 2:00 am and when we inquired we found a hippo that was attacking the cattle but immediately it saw us, it charged towards my husband fortunately killing him,” she said.

“The hippos have increased in number and we are helpless, we don’t know how to do away with them,”

Mr Safari Kadenge Karisa, the village head man at Moi village said that since 2016 he has recorded three deaths and more than ten injuries of people attacked by hippos.

“KWS tells us that one hundred meters from the river is their territory but the hippos are covering six kilometers to our homes and they don’t help us. We have reported all the incidences to KWS but none has been processed six years down the line,” he said.

Hippo Campus, an organization of conservationists set base at the Sabaki River bed and has helped minimize attacks on the hippos as well as advise neighboring communities on the best ways to deal with the animals to also minimize destruction on their farms.

Mr Reuben Macharia, a worker at hippo campus narrated his experience in dealing with the hippos saying that he understands their daily routine hence guides visitors safely.

He added that locals have been erecting nail snares to trap the animals before killing them and sharing the meat.

“We avoid poachers who erect nail snares and slaughter the animals for sale locally and it has helped me earn an income since tourists come here every time and we charge them Sh. 500 for foreigners and Sh. 200 for Kenyans,” he said.

He added that since he started working at the site three years ago, he has helped rescue more than 20 hippos that had stepped on the nail traps set by poachers.

His advice to the local community is that they should dig trenches along their farms and also keep many dogs since the hippos fear dogs saying that erecting a fence will be meaningless since the locals will destroy it.

However, Mr. Karisa objected saying that they have tried to dig trenches but the hippos still make it to the farms and the idea of keeping dogs was pedestrian since dogs cannot chase away hippos.

“If a human being can be killed by a hippo, what will happen to a dog? The solution is to have an electric fence,” he said.

Mr Dominic Kemei who is the proprietor of the camp that sits on about 100 acres on one side of the river said that the number of hippos had reduced to 46 from 200 recorded three years ago and he attributed the loss to poaching.

“We monitor the number of hippos around here because the locals retaliate when they invade their farms and destroy crops and we have also sensitized them on how to live with the animals for a long-term economic venture,” he said.

He added that to contain the animals within 100 meters from the river, they are preparing a feeding ground for the animals by clearing the bushes and planting grass that will be consumed by the hippos.

“There is a special grass being grown that the hippos can feed on as a way of deterring them from moving into people’s farms. We don’t want to feed them directly but we are growing grass in open paddock-like fields that we shall be irrigating so that the grass can grow faster,” he added.

To ensure that locals also play their part in minimizing confrontation with the hippos, Mr Kemei says they are advocating for digging of trenches along the farms whose mission is to desist the hippos from crossing into the farms.

“We have been advising the locals on how to deal with the animals, especially the farmers who are losing greatly by encouraging them to dig trenches around their farms to bar the hippos and protect the crops and we also educate them on the economic benefits of having the hippos around so that they can earn a living as tour guides for visitors,” he said.