Marius Els desperately wanted to play match-maker but he didn’t have a match.
It was eight months ago and Marius was looking for a mate for his five-year-old hippo that he called Humphrey and liked to refer to as his son.
Back in March, Humphrey treed a grandfather and his seven-year-old grandson on the Vaal River. The two had been on a canoe when they saw the 1.2 ton hippo heading towards them. They spent two hours in a tree as emergency services personnel tried to rescue them.
Grandfather and grandson were only able to leave the tree when Marius’s brother Christo swam out and lured the hippo away with an apple.
It had ended happily, but days later when I phoned Marius about the incident he was worried.
He needed to find a mate for Humphrey, he told me, because he believed the hippo was lonely.
Humphrey use to have friend, a Cameroon goat that would trail the hippo around the 400 hectare farm, near Klerksdorp, in the North West province of South Africa. But the goat was killed by a jackal.
Humphrey was approaching humans looking for companionship, Marius said.
But finding a mate for Humphrey was proving difficult.
“I need to find him a tame female hippo,” he said back then.
Marius feared that a wild pod of hippo might not accept Humphrey, who he had hand-reared from the age of five months. He had heard of rumours of a tame female hippo, up near Nelspruit.
But Marius understood that a fellow hippo-lover would be reluctant to hand over a beloved pet.
He also told me he didn’t want to give up Humphrey. So he built a dam for his hippo, where the two of them could swim together. Soon the overseas press caught wind of the crazy farmer in two toned shirts who rode on the back of a hippo.
Marius invited me to come and visit Humphrey. “You will see how tame he is,” he said.
I was reluctant. Hippos have chased me on the Zambezi river. They chased me unprovoked. Hippos kill more people than all the Big Five combined.
I politely said maybe one day.
In recent months there were hints of a darker side to Humphrey
There were media reports of him breaking out of his enclosure and ending up on the Orkney golf course, where he chased people.
There was a claim that he had killed calves. Marius defended his pet, saying he was aware that hippos were dangerous animals, known for their quick tempers, but he believed Humphrey the gentle giant wouldn’t harm him.
He was wrong.
On Saturday Marius’s body was pulled from the Vaal River.
No one could say how long he had been in the river, but they knew what killed him. There were bite marks across Marius body, left by the beast he had called his son.