How the hippo came to Lamu

Sunday August 08 2010

Hippos in the Mara River. Occasionally, groups of up to five rhinos are flushed out of the Tana River delta and into the open sea. They are then belched into the Lamu Channel, some 80 km north. Photo/FILE

On a gusty late afternoon last month, on Lamu’s Shela beach, a dozen locals and tourists stand facing, not the calm azure of the Indian Ocean, but a churning dishwater shade more generally associated with rain-swollen rivers.

Crossed arms indicate they are waiting for something.

But what?

“Hippos,” a uniformed cook says with a furrowed brow that belies his smile. “They are three.”

Hippos on the beach? On an island whose main four-legged inhabitants are donkeys and cats?

Rumours had been swirling that as many as five hippos had stormed the shores of Shela, Lamu’s little sister three miles away. Some reports said three — a mother, father and one offspring.


Just before noon on July 5, shortly after high tide, Shay O’Byrne had been strolling along Shela Beach.

The last thing he expected in the 37 years he’s been visiting was a mid-sized hippo breaching the shallow waters some 20 yards ahead.

It ran away from O’Byrne, hugging the waters, and splashed back into the sea.

An Irish tale, one might think, except that guards who protect Shela’s visitors saw the hippo, too.

At midday on July 8, Famau Skukury and Attwa Salim Mohamed, field co-ordinator and manager of the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, respectively, were leading 50 schoolchildren to help collect trash on Shela Beach when a hippo charged out of the surf towards them.

Famau and Attwa had the presence of mind to rush the children up the dunes and phone a nearby hotel, whose owners notified KWS.

Rangers appeared with a flare or “flash’ gun, their intent being to frighten the hippo.

So far, that strategy has worked.

Nick Kaloki, the Lamu-based deputy game warden for KWS, reports having seen only one sub-adult.

Others noted on the beach the spoor of a sole hippo. No one observed the animal’s sex.

Hippos are as much a menace as a marvel.

Africa’s largest mega-fauna, behind the elephant and white rhino, they are aggressive, often attacking people who live around the shores of rivers and lakes, a habitat the species must necessarily share.

The hippos sighted are not the first hippos to find themselves beached on the shores of Lamu.

Three years ago, a “massive” hippo harassed people walking to work on the stretch of beach between Shela and Lamu.

KWS rangers tried to scare it off using flash guns, but it kept returning.

Eventually, they chased and killed the creature, dragging it ashore, a process witnesses said took as much as two hours.

By then villagers had lined the shore waiting their turn to claim the animal’s meat.

A hippo once lost in the maze of tiny alleys of Shela suffered the same fate.

When I asked a Lamu-based tourist official who is responsible for deciding how the approximately 400kg of meat is distributed, he answered, “Whoever has the knife.”

Given that “hippopotamus” is ancient Greek for “river horse,” what are the beasts doing in the ocean?

How might they have got to Lamu Island?

ElsenKarstad, a Canadian ecologist who earned his degree studying Kenya’s Mara River hippo, confirmed that it is possible for hippo, even groups of up to five, to be flushed out of the Tana River delta and into the open sea.

Caught in a two-knot current, they are belched into the Lamu Channel, some 80km north.

The more likely scenario though is that the lone hippo came from the Lake Kenyatta area on the mainland, closer to Lamu island.

Humans usually drive hippos away from suitable habitat and the latter can travel for hundreds of miles before re-settling.

As with many mammals, dominant males drive off younger males.

In search of fresh water ponds, the outcast will wander — puddle-jumping along the way — until reaching the labyrinth of mangroves on the coast.

But by then he has usually lost his way.

Discombobulated and displaced by a high tide or a rain-swollen river, the animal crosses the river at the southern end of Lamu island, on the beach.

Frightened and disoriented, it might very likely rush back into the sea for cover and be swept up into Lamu Channel.

The hippo generally is unable to digest the coarse, salt-tolerant varieties of grasses found on Kenya’s sandy beaches.

Without sufficient fresh water to protect it from dehydration and sunburn, it will last a week or 10 days but will ultimately die.

The best-case scenario, suggests Karstad, is to tranquilise, transport and relocate the animal, but that is complicated by the high likelihood of its running back into the water, only to drown when the drug takes effect.

It is also difficult to handle such a large animal without specialised equipment.

Or is the better option to kill the animal, thereby providing meat to residents and putting it out of its misery?

Some say they last saw this hippo on Manda Island, near the Takwa ruins.

Could recent rains have rehydrated its dry skin and provided fresh water pools.

It has been several weeks now since the hippo was first sighted on Shela beach.

It’s probably long dead.