30 Apr 2018

Surprise hippo invades bird walk in Burundi

The appearance of a hippopotamus at an African bird hotspot was funny and perilous in equal measure – but highlights the underlying problem of human encroachment driving these massive mammals out of their usual home

An idyllic birding stroll turned into a dangerous safari with the intrusion of this unexpected pachyderm © ABN
An idyllic birding stroll turned into a dangerous safari with the arrival of this pachyderm © ABN
By Blandine Mélis, BirdLife Africa & Eric Niyongabo, ABN

On the first Saturday of every month, members of the Association Burundaise pour la protection de la Nature (ABN - Birdlife Partner) prepare for Naturewalk, their famous bird discovery trip. Participants set out in the hope of spotting a beautiful new bird species – but these shared moments in nature are also a valuable opportunity to observe and monitor the state of the environment. Members keep a weather eye out for signs of pollution, habitat degradation, landslides and poaching along their route.

On the morning of 3 March 2018, Naturewalk took its members to the suburbs of Bujumbura city to explore Buterere sewage lagoons. This might not sound like the most glamorous of excursions, but in fact, the waste water provides nutrients that support an abundant diversity of life, attracting large flocks of birds that congregate and feed there.

However, on this particular day, the birdwatchers’ appreciation of the area’s special species (including the Jacobin Cuckoo Clamator jacobinus) was interrupted by panicked cries from local children shouting: “NO Imvubu irabarya!" – which in Kirundi means “Stop! You could be attacked by a hippo!”

The surprise was universal and the bucolic stroll, carefully planned by ornithologist guide Eric Niyongabo, suddenly took on the dimensions of a dangerous safari.

Only the inhabitants were not surprised. Lately, there have been several reports of hippos in the neighbourhood.

But what was this hippo doing in the waters of Buterere, so close to residential areas? Only the inhabitants were not surprised. Lately, there have been several reports of solitary hippos wandering the neighbourhood. Some residents even claim to have seen this individual in particular:  "It lets children approach and even touch it. Even local calves come closer, imagining it is their mother." And yet, with an animal of this size, all who come near risk being crushed or mauled.

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Normally, these animals wallow in the river Rusizi, which empties into Lake Tanganyika on the outskirts of the city. This landscape, once pristine, is today being gradually invaded by agriculture and development, driven by a growing population and the rapid expansion of the Burundian capital.

 

Hippopotamuses generally live in large groups dominated by a polygamous and aggressive male, for whom the protection of females and territory are his primary concern. Males that are highly submissive or lacking in combat skills move away from the herd and thus find themselves alone, isolated from their fellow pachyderms. This, combined with the abundance of green space at Buterere and the destruction of their original territory, is what drives these colossal herbivores to seek refuge here. And, in doing so, disturb our naturalists’ escapade.

 

With nowhere left to go, males ostracised from the herd are seeking refuge in suburban areas © ABN

 

Although it is herbivorous, this animal is among the most dangerous species in Africa, responsible for 2,900 human deaths a year. However, humans pose an equal threat to the species, and are often forced to exterminate intruding hippopotami in defence of their community. It’s safe to say that human-hippo overlap ends badly for both parties.

To be on the safe side, the Naturewalk attendees turned back and retraced their steps, in equal parts impressed to encounter this majestic wild beast, and worried for the future of its kind.

This unexpected encounter drives home a valuable lesson: that encroaching bit by bit upon our wild spaces is not without consequence. To avoid human-wildlife conflict, we need to respect the Environment Code in force in Burundi, which stipulates that nothing can be built within 150 meters of the banks of Lake Tanganyika, 50 meters for the other lakes and 25 meters for the rivers. These measures need to be enforced more strongly, including an appropriate and shared approach to land use. Otherwise, encounters such as these will inevitably increase.