Imvubu Newsletter

Famous Hippos

© Thibedi, L. 2007 Imvubu 19: 3, 4 – 5.

Although Huberta became the most famous hippopotamus of its time, there were also other hippos, which were seen wandering the streets of towns.

Most of the time these hippos, which were found wandering in the human environment, were tame and sometimes unafraid of people. But hippos are wild in Nature.


Huberta was originally called Hubert because she was at first thought to be a male hippopotamus. Between 1928 and1930, she wandered across the province of Natal visiting farms, villages, and cities along the way. Many people believed that a visit from Huberta was an omen of good fortune and treated her as a welcome guest. Others considered her a nuisance and sought to drive her out of town or worse. In Durban Huberta strolled right down the main street, raided a fruit stand and almost entered a movie theatre where a Judy Garland film was showing. Huberta’s wanderings took her an estimated 1, 200 miles from her starting point. Unfortunately, Huberta’s story had a sad ending. An angry farmer, unaware of her celebrity status, killed her because she reputedly grazed in his fields. Then came the biggest surprise of all: Hubert was discovered to be a female.


Hugo’s story is similar to Huberta’s. In the mid-1960s, Hugo began wandering away from his usual feeding grounds on the banks of the Kurasini Creek, just outside the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and invaded nearby farms to feast on sweet potatoes, maize and cabbage. Thanks to a series of newspaper stories, the roaming hippo soon became the talk of the whole country. Local farmers wanted him destroyed, but the majority, especially the nation’s children, sided with Hugo. Newspapers, schools and animal welfare groups were soon organizing a save-Hugo fund. Hugo’s cause was aided by the fact that he was an unusually friendly hippo. He loved to romp with dogs along the shores of the Kurasini and march behind herds of cattle. It was even reported that water skiers skimmed over Hugo’s partly submerged back without his raising a fuss. What eventually happened to Hugo is unknown.


He was a friendly hippo that wandered from the Rust de Winter dam up the Elands River to its source 20 miles from Pretoria in 1956. Harold’s story is similar to Huberta’s. It was estimated that Harold had wandered at least 100 miles before he was first seen on the upper reaches of the Elands River. Along the way, Harold helped himself to farmers’ monkey nuts and maize when he was hungry. He grazed on grass when he could find no tastier meal. He was shot on the 23 July 1956 as an act of mercy in view of his deteriorating condition owing to lack of food and interference from the public. Although it was reckoned that Harold could be a female considering his height and weight, it was only after his death that he was found to be female and renamed Haroldina.


Bubbles the hippo caught the nation’s attention in late February and early March 1978 when she escaped from a wild animal park in Southern California. Bubbles disappeared into the Laguna Hills near Irvine, where she avoided capture for nineteen days. On 10 March, Bubbles was finally brought down with tranquilliser darts. Tragically, she collapsed in an unusual position and died of suffocation. An autopsy later revealed that she was five months pregnant.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great, known later simply as Pete, was born at the Central Park Zoo on 13 July 1903, but spent most of his long life at the nearby Bronx Zoo. He was one of that zoo’s most popular attractions, mainly because of his longevity. Pete lived to the age of 49 years, 6 months and 19 days, a record age for a hippopotamus in captivity.


Bongo was the National Zoo’s hippo weighing 5, 200 pounds. The animal died on the 4 December 1959 and the post-mortem showed the diversity of his appetite. The stomach contents included about $2.50 in assorted coins, fare tokens, a tube of lipstick and unfired .25 calibre cartridges, spent pistol shells, a plastic wallet and an assortment of nuts, bolts, wire and stones. Bongo had lived in the zoo for more than 45 years.


Balie exhausted the patience of the Orangeville villagers who adopted the wandering hippo as the town pet after he settled at Vaal dam for five months. His downfall was his newfound liking for fresh, green wheat on farmer Boet van Tonder’s lands. The hippo captured the headlines when he settled at Orangeville, after wandering down the Vaal River from the direction of Standerton. After regular sightings of his night sorties on farmland, the locals defied a Free State Nature Conservation department order that he be shot. They launched the Orangeville Conservancy, headed by Town Clerk, Duif Lubbe, and accepted the local game farmers’ offer to care for Balie if he was relocated. After some time, Balie took three weeks’ leave to plot his future movements. That was when Balie decided to go to ground until on the 3 September 1997 when Van Tonder discovered he had trampled whole sections of wheat fields while feeding 30m from the water’s edge. He reacted by threatening to shoot Balie.


Winnie was a renegade hippo that was causing havoc on farms in the Somerset East district destroying crops in search of food. She was christened Winnie because she was believed to be a female. Winnie escaped from the Addo Elephant National Park in 1997. She began a cross-country marathon similar to that of Huberta. When Winnie was first seen she was believed to have already travelled 100km across the Zuurberg mountain range and through the arid Karoo following a river canal.

Winnie, along with her mate, dubbed Nelson, escaped on their long walk to freedom after heavy floods destroyed the electric fencing at the park 18 months before Winnie came into the picture. The park followed the happy hippos’ walk of about 50km to Lake Mentz, where they settled for a short while in the Darlington dam. At the dam Winnie gave birth to a calf.

The farmers originally wanted to shoot the hippos because they damaged crops and fences. However, Addo Elephant National Park made an arrangement and the farmers agreed to leave them alone. The Park was unable to capture the hippos while they were at Darlington dam because darting them would result in them drowning in the dam. All the Park could do was to rely on farmers in the area to keep them updated on their whereabouts. Then it was discovered that Nelson had been “murdered” during a “family dispute” by Winnie in June 1998. At the beginning of 1999 Winnie’s whereabouts were still unknown. Two farmers noticed hippo prints in the Lucerne fields on their farms situated 30km apart. What happened to her in the end is unclear.

A lone hippo from Harare

At the beginning of June 1985 pupils wending their way to school in the Harare suburb of Marlbough could hardly believe their eyes when they saw a six-year-old, 1500kg female hippo wandering the streets. The police had to close suburban roads and National Parks wardens tranquillised the animal which tragically died half an hour later from the multiple effects of the drug, prolonged time out of water and excitement at being in a strange human environment.


Horatia, the hippo, and her calf were seen at the Matapos dam, near Bulawayo on the 15 February 1958. They left the dam making their way to Lettersterdt farm at the Gwaai River near Figtree, a distance of about 15 miles. They left the farm a few days later moving back in the general direction of the Matapos dam. It appeared that they only returned to the farm on the 25 March 1958. Their exact movements during the intervening period were unknown, but they probably covered something like 100 miles in all stopping in their travels at points along the Gwaai River and smaller streams. The hippos had stayed at the Matapos dam for about two years before they took their jaunt and came to be regarded as pets by visitors to the area.