Experiencing the incredible bond between game warden Tonie Joubert and Jessica the Hippo, it’s easy to forget that this is Africa’s most fearsome animal.
Having grown up to fear hippos more than any other creature on the African continent, it was with great hesitation that I approached Jessica’s giant canine teeth and powerful gaping jaw. Just seconds before, Tonie Joubert planted a kiss on the smiling hippo, who washed up on his doorstep in South Africa 12 years ago after devastating floods separated her from her mother.
In the wild, a lone premature calf won’t survive for long, but Tonie and his wife Shirley nursed Jessica to health with baby formula. She now weighs nearly 2, 200 pounds and sleeps on their veranda in the Limpopo province! Jessica is the world’s most famous hippo and perhaps the only one who has forgotten how aggressive and scary she is supposed to be.
Culling wild hippos
My aunt and mother grew up in the Zambian bush and both married American professional hunters. For a spell, my Uncle Rolf was a game warden at the Luangwa National Park before he was replaced by Tonie Joubert – Jessica’s surrogate father.
Professional hunters are often called upon to cull animals in order to maintain the delicate balance between predator and prey in game parks. This is typically how hunting works in Africa. A wealthy foreigner will pay big money for the privilege to shoot a wild animal and keep its trophy, which contributes to maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and the funds are used to keep the game park afloat.
Joubert has put more than 1,000 hippos to death in his lifetime, but Jessica found a special place in his heart.
So special, in fact, that he spends nearly $2,000 a month to keep her alive. He buys corn and sweet potato for her to eat – hippos are vegetarians – and replaces her mattress every two weeks. She also has a tea fetish and greedily slurps away at decaffeinated rooibos tea fed to her from a 2 liter coke bottle.
Last year while I was conducting research for a story on Lake Naivasha in Kenya, a wild hippo attacked the boat I was on and it sank within five minutes. If we hadn’t been close to the river bank, that hippo would have killed all of us without a second thought. They are territorial creatures and protective of their young.
Few people who have found themselves stuck between a female hippo and its calf have lived to tell the tale and Jessica has all the mechanisms that make them so frightening including a jaw that extends up to 150 degrees and has a bite pressure of approximately 1,821 pounds. But the Jouberts have never seen her display the slightest amount of aggression.
Taking the wild out of the hippo
Alec Kleynhans from the Mafigeni Safari Lodge, where I am currently staying with my family, raises the old adage that you can take the animal out of the wild but you can never take the wild out of the animal. He worries that one day Jessica will snap.
Tonie warned another man in the Limpopo province who tried to tame a male hippo that once it reached maturity and had a certain amount of testosterone in its body, it would be foolish to keep him. “I told him the hippo will kill him, but he didn’t want to listen and shut the phone down in my ear,” Tonie told us.
One night the man had too many drinks and tried to ride the hippo’s back like a rodeo animal. As predicted, the hippo killed him.
Although she regularly frolics with wild hippos in the Blyde river and is free to do as she likes, Jessica returns to the Joubert’s home every night. But now that she is beginning to reach a weight that primes her for bearing her own calf, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next.
all images via Tafline Laylin
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