There’s a clue in the name of the Seekoei River. There used to be lots of hippos here. Despite the seemingly harsh conditions of the Karoo, the veld supports mixed herds of game. These herds in the historic times were often huge in numbers. a key to this abundance is the permanent surface water that the Upper Seekoei valley provides.
Historic eye-witness accounts reveal that a little over 250 years ago the Seekoei was fairly abundant with hippos, as were many other rivers in the Karoo. The French explorer Francois Le Vaillant who trekked across the Karoo at the end of the C18th records hunting hippos and making a dish out of their feet. Indeed the first animals encountered by van Riebeeck in the swamps where Cape Town now sits were hippos.
Hippos were also a source of food and mythology for hunter-gatherers. Rock art depicting hippos can be found in the Karoo and the San used pit-traps to capture them. But they were also magical beast, symbols of rain and rain-making.
Characterised by their great size, barrel-shaped bodies and stumpy stout legs hippos require deep pools to languish in and where they can feel safe to socialise and bring up their young. Today the conditions that supported hippos in the historic past still exist and conservancies have been established to restore the habitat to hippo standard.
In 2005 hippos were reintroduced to the Karoo at New Holme within the Karoo Gariep Hippo Conservancy, near Hanover. The hippos have settled so well that they are know breeding successfully and a new generation of hippos is being established.
The positive benefits of reintroducing a large mammal species are also being realised. Not only are the hippos a great driver for tourism, but ecologically their presence is have a marked impact on the stretch of river in which they live. Common species shape the world and provide ecological services as keystone species or ecosystem engineers. Hippos influence freshwater food chains by importing nutrients (urine, excreta) into aquatic systems, promoting phytoplankton growth and enhancing the productivity of the system.
The grazing activities of hippos also helps modify surrounding ecosystems (vegetation, riverbed and beaches), making them beneficial to other species which benefit from lawns created by grazing or which feed around and/or on hippos. The abundance and diversity of the other species can be direct benefit of the size and distribution of hippo populations.
At New Holme plant life around the hippo pool has been enriched by hippo activity and principally hippo dung. This in turn is creating a riverine habitat richer in fish, and insects attracting birds and recently the tracks of a clawless otter, a new arrival to the area, have been spotted.
Further upstream in the High Karoo Park the conservation work that the Nama-Karoo Foundation has conducted since 2004 has reinstated the dams and pools of the Seekoei headwaters. Hippos require aquatic ecosystems as their “daily living space” where they spend most of their time, as well as grazing pastures on land . Their survival is therefore affected by water quality and scarcity, and habitat change in areas adjacent to wetlands.
Conservation work by the NKF has concentrated on restoring the network of vleis and interlinking pools and re-establishing the freshwater aquatic systems to sustain a variety of wildlife from yellowfish to tortoises. The results of this conservation work mean that the ecological stage is now set to reintroduce hippos into the High Karoo Park and to further ensure that the Seekoei river valley is a place of hippos in reality, not just in name.
The NKF is committed to the long-term sustainable re-introduction of hippos to the Karoo. In sub-Saharan Africa the Common Hippopotamus has declined by over 30% in recent years and is threatened by habitat loss and illegal hunting.