22 April 2014 by Tara Turkington

Hippos find New Holme in the Karoo

Hippos in the Karoo? It might seem crazy, but these quintessential water mammals once occurred here, and now after more than 200 years of being locally extinct, they’re back, enjoying the deep pools of the Seekoei River.

Hippos have returned to the Karoo, more than 200 years after they became extinct here. Image PC Ferreira
Hippo, New Holme Guest Farm. Image by Nicholas Thiel

More than 200 years after they were shot out by hunters in the 1770s, hippos are again wallowing in deep waterholes in the Karoo’s Seekoei River.

Sheep farmer and guest-house owner PC Ferreira spent several years researching historical records of hippopotamus occurring in this most unlikely of environments – the parched Karoo. The Seekoei River winds its way through the arid land near the small town of Hanover in the Karoo, including through his farm, New Holme, leaving several deep pools lined with reeds that are perfect for hippos.

Among records Ferreira found were those by Field Corporal Adriaan van Jaarsveld, written in the 1770s, and writings by early explorer, soldier and naturalist Robert Jacob Gordon (1743-1795), who also visited this area in what is now the Northern Cape in 1777.

Evening reflections on the Seekoei River. Image by Nicholas Thiel

Once Ferreira was able to prove convincingly from historical writings that hippo had once occurred in the Seekoei River (seekoei means ‘hippo’ in Afrikaans), he was able to obtain a permit to keep hippos on his farm. The first three hippos came from Mpumalanga in 2008, and before long, they were breeding every other year – a total of three calves have been born so far.

I loved the hippos’ laughter, and seeing the bubbles they made floating on the water. It was surprising and unusual to see hippos in the Karoo.

The first cow that gave birth went downstream to another farm, and had her calf on a neighbouring farm in a large pool that Ferreira said he could identify from an old sketch was once one of the popular hippo hunting spots on this river, back in the 1700s. Once her calf was big enough, she brought him home to the pools at New Holme.

Eland, Africa's largest antelope, at New Holme Guest Farm. Image by Tara Turkington

In the evenings, Ferreira drives guests at New Holme through a few kilometres of his arid farm to the Seekoei River, where the hippos blow bubbles in a pool 4m deep that is lined with reeds that rustle softly in the breeze.

'I loved the hippos’ laughter, and seeing the bubbles they made floating on the water,' said Nicholas Thiel, a young visitor to New Holme. 'It was surprising and unusual to see hippos in the Karoo.'

'We drove on the back of a bakkie (pick-up truck) in the late afternoon to see the hippos in the river,' said his sister, Alice. 'I really didn’t expect to see hippos in that dry place, or to see that pretty river. We also saw buck and an owl.'

Now Ferreira wants to establish a wider conservancy, the Karoo Seekoei River Nature Reserve, where other farmers in the area welcome not only hippos to their farms like he has done, but other animals that also once occurred in the Karoo, including buffalo, white rhino and even perhaps the desert black rhino.

The vision for the reserve is 'to see the transformation of the Seekoei River area into the pristine wilderness area Robert J Gordon witnessed during his 1778 expedition'.

The arid Karoo landscape through which the Seekoei River runs. Image by Tara Turkington

'If we could turn this area into a conservancy, we could not only return it to the way it once was, but also provide jobs for many people in this area,' explained Ferreira, whose father farmed New Holme and nearby farm Mieliesfontein before him.

'Sheep farms only employ very few people; tourism can create many more jobs,' he said. 'Plus, we have a duty to protect and preserve the natural heritage of the Karoo. I am passionate about conservation. If I can get others to buy into this idea of a conservancy, I can see myself making this my life’s work.'

Comfortable guest accommodation at New Holme Guest Farm. Image by Tara Turkington

The area for the proposed Karoo Seekoei River Nature Reserve totals about 450 000 hectares and includes more than 50 properties bordering the Seekoei River from the catchment to the mouth at the Van der Kloof Dam. This area is between the towns of Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape and Petrusville in the Northern Cape and follows the flow of the Seekoei River just east of Hanover and west of Colesberg in the Northern Cape province.

The mission for the reserve is 'To be a major role player in the South African conservation arena by facilitating the reintroduction of regionally extinct species into the project area, to contribute exponentially to the conservation targets of the Republic of South Africa, and to create a potential tourism industry environment that will result in improved quality of life for the people of the area.'

This would mean reintroducing regionally extinct species, encouraging every landowner in the area to form part of the reserve, and managing and protecting the biodiversity of the area.

In essence, Ferreira’s vision is to influence all landowners in the proposed area to stop stock farming and focus instead on farming game and on building tourism as a local industry.

If that could happen, this area could see many more hippos laughing and chortling again in the Seekoei River.

Karoo dawn. Image by Tara Turkington
Aerial view of the Seekoei River. Image by PC Ferreira
PC Ferreira's vision is to transform this land from sheep-farming country into a reserve and tourist-Mecca. Image by Tara Turkington
Reeds and evening sky, New Holme. Image by Nicholas Thiel

Category: Attractions, Culture & History, Responsible Tourism, Wildlife

comments powered by Disqus