As 57-year-old Timothy Mamman-Gawas made his way to his farm in Difa community, Gombe State, one evening, he certainly didn’t anticipate the surprising sight that awaited him. Instead of the peaceful farmland he expected, he stumbled upon a scene of mammoth brown hippopotamuses voraciously feasting on his soon-to-be harvested rice plantation.
This unexpected encounter marked a startling twist in his rural visit.
According to the punchng.com, At the sight of the animals, he said the memory of what took him to the farm took flight as he tried to maintain his composure without alerting the hippopotami to his presence.
After the incident, Mamman-Gawas said he alerted his co-farmers to the return of the yearly invasion of their farmland by hippopotami.
The farmer, who stated that he farmed during the wet and dry seasons, noted that the first invasion started in 1999, and that it had since then become a menace, especially for dry-season farmers.
For instance, few years ago, Mamman-Gawas stated that out of the 150 bags of rice he expected he would harvest during the dry season rice farming, his harvest barely filled three bags of rice, owing to the invasion of the hippos.
He said, “I am the first farmer who experienced hippopotamus attack in this region since around 1999 and 2000. They migrated from Kiri Dam in Shelleng LGA of Adamawa State in the North-East.
“That year, Abubakar Hashidu was the Governor of Gombe State. We reported the case to the Ministry of Agriculture and they forwarded the case to the Ministry of Resources. The ministry sent about two to three hunters to prevent them from invading our farms.”
The events of that year were unforgettable for the now 57-year-old farmer who was 33 years old at the time.
Interestingly, as Mamman-Gawas grew in age, the animals also multiplied significantly in their number, from about two at the time to over 50 at the moment.
He said further, “We couldn’t harvest anything, I was expecting over 150 bags of rice but it didn’t happen. Due to their invasion of the farm, I could only harvest three bags. We even recorded a video of it. The hippopotami were just two as of that year but now they are above 50.”
To prevent a recurrence, the farmer stated that in 2020 when he planted rice for the dry season farming, he spent four months keeping vigil at his farm to scare the hippos.
But in spite of all the efforts, he said he could only harvest 54 bags of rice as against the 200 bags he hoped to get.
He said, “I planted rice and spent four months awake, preventing them from invading my farm. Then I was able to get only 54 bags of rice. Farmers who refused to guard their farms were unable to harvest a bag of rice. They invaded the farms in groups; some would come in a group of eight, some 12, like that and the attacks kept reoccurring.”
Hippopotamus, also known as River Horse in Greek, are herbivores and semi-aquatic mammals native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are mostly found in protected areas, game reserves, zoos and national parks. Outside protected areas, they are found in areas such as estuarine habitats, inland rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
Britannica describes hippopotamus as having a bulky body with stumpy legs, an enormous head, a short tail, and four toes on each foot. Each toe has a nail-like hoof. Males are usually 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) long, stand 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall, and weigh 3,200kg (3.5 tons).
Sunday PUNCH learnt that their invasion of people’s farms during the dry season farming, which spanned from November to March, was because grasses tend to dry up in the wild, due to reduced rainfall. Thus, the hippos, in their search for food, migrate to and feast on readily available greens, which sometimes are people’s farms.
Their physical attributes enables them to eat staple crops from rice to maize and watermelon, asides from grass. Also, they could easily destroy hectares of land by rolling from one side to the other, unaware of the huge damage that could cause farm owners.
Hippopotami are endangered species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the animals, which were once in abundance across Africa, recorded an estimate of 100 remaining in Nigeria.
The fear of hippos
Given its size, the sight of it alone is frightening. Thus, the fear of the hippos destroying their crops was noticeable on the farmers’ faces when Sunday PUNCH visited the community.
The situation has limited them their farming activities, especially the dry season farmers.
Farmers who spoke with Sunday PUNCH stated that they left their homes at dawn each planting season, in high hopes of a bountiful harvest but due to the likelihood of the hippos straying to their farms to feed, they are constrained to rely on hope for any possible harvest.
A 2020 research article by Lynne R. Bakeron, et al on ‘Common hippopotamus in Nigeria: New census data and literature review’ confirm the conservation importance of sites outside protected areas’ noted that available data in 2019 showed that hippos in Kiri reservoir represented the largest recorded population in Nigeria, adding that it exceeded individual populations in officially protected areas.
The farmer stated that the reservoir had over 50 hippos, a number that was corroborated by the findings of Lynne R. Baker et al, which put the number of hippos in the reservoir to “a minimum of 56 (52 adults and five calves)”.
Although the dam in the agrarian Difa community allegedly generates 40 megawatts of hydroelectric power, the area lacked basic infrastructural development. Ironically, the community could go for days and weeks without power supply.
It takes about 15 minutes on a motorcycle to the area as there is no operational taxi from Zambukk, which roughly takes about 35 minutes from Gombe metropolis.
Mamman-Gawas said not much had been done by previous administrations to tackle the dangers posed by the hippopotami to both humans and their crops.
Farmer turned watchman
As a result, the situation had brought untold hardship on farmers in the community as Mamman-Gawas stated that he had to sell his property in 2020 to recover from debt, since the farm could not yield enough produce to offset the money he invested.
To avoid further debt, he said he farmed in the morning and became a watchman at night.
He added, “I liquidated all my assets because of the incidence, that’s why I have no other option but to be the night watchman for my farm. I made a hut on the farm and two of us stay on the farm.”
Mamman-Gawas recalled an experience where the destruction by hippopotami was reported to the then governor Ibrahim Dankwambo, now the senator representing Gombe North, but that Dankwambo did nothing about it, as he wondered what business man had with the animals.
“When the case was reported to Dankwambo, he said the water belongs to the hippopotamus and he refused to do anything about the report, and that we farmers should forget about it. He forgot that the water helps in boosting food security in the community, and not only that, it provides electricity, it is used for irrigation and it serves as drinking water,” he added.
While calling for urgent attention, Mamman-Gawas pleaded public private partnership to ensure the security of the farmers and their crops, adding, “Most times if we report, the government does nothing about it, except if others from outside will come and do something about it, which we support because from Difa down to Nafada (a neighbouring community), people use this same water to farm.
“People (farmers) are willing to do this dry season farming but because of the hippopotamus attacks they get discouraged.”
Prevailing season of losses, fear
The Chairman of Dry Season Farmers who spoke on behalf of the Galadima of Difa, Mahdi Turaki, Abubakar Dauda, said the community and its 22 villages had suffered from attacks by the hippopotami.
Turaki mentioned some of the villages to include Jamare, Walam, Jauro Aminu, Jauro Kado, Garin Bara, Garin Kalagari, Garkulun, Wuro Ibah, Wailare, Gulamari, Tudun Wada, Jauro Kudi and Ngude.
He disclosed that most farmers operated mainly with loans from the Anchor Borrowers Programme, a credit scheme by the Federal Government; Fadama II and Fadama III projects.
According to the World Bank, the agricultural projects which were in three phases, started in 1992 and ended in 2019.
It stated, “Fadama I, which started in 1992, was a pilot agricultural project, designed to offer basic irrigation and other support to farmers in selected states. In 2003, Fadama II introduced a groundbreaking community-driven development model and helped institutionalise local stakeholder engagement in community decision-making. In Fadama III, the project expanded geographically and became a well-known, national brand of local agricultural development.
“The Fadama project series ended in 2019. Before it, most rural projects in Nigeria were managed centrally, with decisions made at higher levels of government.”
Owing to the serial invasion, Turaki stated that many farmers after counting their losses were not able to meet up with the loan repayment timelines.
He noted, “We have challenges of hippopotamus. Farmers take a loan from Anchor Borrower programme, Fadama II and Fadama III to get generators, fertilisers and seeds. After collecting everything on credit, the hippopotamus will invade the farms and destroy plantations. Farmers usually find it difficult to pay back because of the loss.”
While urging the state government to facilitate support for farmers, Turaki added that authorities should also employ guards to ensure the protection of crops, especially during the dry season.
“Farmers need assistance from the government by sending or employing people to look after our farms. Secondly, we don’t have fertilisers. If the government will assist us in giving us a loan, either money or fertilizers, after harvesting we repay them,” he said.
Speaking on the financial burden of the attacks on farmers, Turaki added, “Farmers usually lose 15 to 20 million as farmers every year. I have financial challenges in my house because of the economic situation. We don’t have maize, rice and many others. I keep bags of rice and maize before but now I measure food from the market for my family because the attacks have destroyed our farms and plunged many people into debts.
“The animals come between November, when the dry season is about to start, and March. For now, they will not come out because there are enough grasses for them to eat, but during the dry season, they come out and eat our plants.”
Another dry-season farmer, Mahdi Sani, stated that he lost over 190 bags of rice he was supposed to harvest last year.
Narrating his ordeal, Sani stated, “I am a dry season farmer. As my brother said earlier, we are facing hippopotamus attacks. Hippopotamus attacks us by eating our crops on the farm, and if one attempts to chase them they will become violent and try to kill the person. They are herbivores, which means they feed on grass, but they could kill.
“I got more than 200 bags of rice two years ago, but last year I got only 10 bags because the hippopotami invaded my farm and ate my rice. So, as you can imagine, it is a great loss for me and my family, I lost over 190 bags of rice to them.
I wasn’t the only one who recorded losses, other farmers also face the same challenge. We are not comfortable leaving our families to watch over our farms day and night and it is our only source of income.”
He called for government’s intervention to end the reccurring challenge, adding, “We want the government to intervene by controlling and preventing the hippopotamus from entering our farms to eat our crops. The government should provide gate watchers (forest guards) for the animals like those working with the forestry department. They should also provide loans for us in terms of fertilisers or money because we are always at a loss due to the attacks.”
Sacrifices to prevent attacks
In a bid to protect their farms, Sani noted, “Sometimes, we stay on the farm 24/7 to prevent them from invading our farms, because we don’t have money to pay others to do it for us. If the government can provide a reasonable salary for those that can watch over our farms, it will go a long way.”
Sani advised the government to relocate the mammals from their present location, saying, “If there’s a way the government can take all of them away from here they should please do it.”
Although Sani is a dry-season farmer, he stated that the losses during the dry season were more than planting during the wet season.
He stated, “Wet season doesn’t consume too much fertilizers compared to dry season farming, because the land is fertile. So, the loss during dry season is much more than that of wet season,” he added.
A retired civil servant, Elisha Ibrahim, who corroborated Sani’s claims told our correspondent that he had yet to experience any attack by hippopotamus because he plants during the wet season only.
However, he affirmed that the attacks on crops had become endemic during dry season farming, adding that that was why he decided to engage in wet season farming only to mitigate losses.
He added, “We experience hippopotamus attacks during the dry season and it affects those that farm on the island. They come out during the dry season to look for grasses to eat. Sometimes, they even come near our settlement in the village and it is dangerous.”
Ibrahim pleaded with the government to take decisive steps towards bringing solutions to the farmers’ challenges.
“We are calling on the government to take action on it. We will appreciate it because we have fishermen and children roaming around and it is a great risk. No one needs to be told that the animal is dangerous. From the appearance, you could tell that if they maul anything or anyone, it will lead to death.
“I am also calling on the government to create a place where they can keep them so they won’t be moving to where we are. That would save us from them and they can also be taken to game reserves and zoos where people can go and see them.”
Notably, however, despite the danger they pose and the numerous attacks recorded by many farmers in Malleri, Dadin Kowa and Difa, it’s illegal to kill them.
Government highlights interventions
When contacted, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Abubakar Hassan, told Sunday PUNCH that the government was doing a lot concerning the perennial attacks, adding, “The hippopotami are endangered species and we will not like them to get extinct.
They are not everywhere and they are rarely found. The little we have around this place we will not like them to get extinct, and the farmers are all out for them because the animals are destroying their farmland.”
Hassan disclosed that the government had embarked on enlightenment campaigns on how best to handle the animals and at the same time secure the farmlands.
He added, “We have acquired a large number of motorcycles, and we have engaged forest rangers and forest guards to move around the river bank. We have over 20 guards already and it is a long stretch. We have acquired engine boats that would be on surveillance around the area, unlike before when we used to go to Yobe State to hire boats.
“The government under Alhaji Inuwa Yahaya has acquired boats. Just about two weeks ago, the motorcycles were launched at the Government House. The boat we used to hire used to carry eight to nine passengers and doesn’t have an engine. It is paddled like a canoe, so it will be able to carry twice the number and has an engine that runs the boat.
“The guards have been trained on the protection of the animals and crops. They know how to push them back into the water, we have engaged village heads and community leaders, which is a continuous exercise by enlightening them on what to do by reaching us for immediate response.”
Reacting to the N20,000 forest guards charge, the Permanent Secretary said it had been cancelled.
He stated, “No, they won’t be charged by the guards. It’s the responsibility of the government, they don’t need to pay any money to safeguard their farmlands.
We have a drone specifically made for that area. We usually deploy it from time to time. Once we receive information regarding the animal, we quickly deploy the drone to know their exact location.”
Hassan further noted that a sanctuary would be built for the hippos to forestall further invasion, adding that this would increase the internally generated revenue of the state and position it for tourism.
He noted, “That particular area of the river bank and canal along that place is under the Upper Benue River Basin Development Authority. So, the state government has a limit on how it can further operate its scope. Based on this, we have had a series of engagements, which are still going on between the Gombe State Government and Upper Benue River Basin Development Authority so that we can establish the colony with the collaboration of the Authority.”
Also, the Director-General, Press Affairs, Government House, Gombe, Ismaila Misilli, said the Yahaya administration was conducting an assessment of the viability and sustainability of constructing a hippo colony.
Misilli stated, “On the update on Governor Inuwa’s visionary plan to establish a hippo colony in Gombe State, it’s important to note that the initiative was conceived by the governor to stem the perennial crop destruction by hippopotami in Dadin Kowa.
“This initiative is still in its planning stage. The government is conducting thorough research and assessment to ensure the viability and sustainability of the project. The partnership with Lynne Baker, a United States-based wildlife conservationist, is to bring expertise and credibility to the endeavour.”
While disclosing the place of the communities in such initiatives, Misilli noted that the government would ensure that their plans aligned with the interests of the people and their environment.
He added, “The government recognises the significant negative impact of crop destruction by hippos around that axis on local communities and agricultural productivity. It was with this in mind that His Excellency sought the partnership to explore the establishment of the hippo colony.
“The primary objective of the partnership is to mitigate crop destruction by the wild animals while contributing to the economic growth of the state through tourism. Through the hippo colony, Governor Inuwa aims to create a balanced ecosystem that minimises human-wildlife conflicts by protecting the endangered species and protecting the people from the animals, which are known for destroying farm crops and hindering fishing activities within the area.”