Little did I know when our plane touched down on Namibian soil that I’d be returning to the UK, two weeks later, having fallen madly in love with . . . . a warthog!
I first met ‘Hick-Up’ at the AfriCat office. There he was; just a few weeks old. Resembling a remote-controlled toy he zoomed over every available area of floor space on high-heeled trotters with his aerial-like tail held stiff in the air. With his head, accounting for almost 50% of his body, he was instantly adorable. His huge black eyes zipped open each side of his shiny face onto which his perfectly formed pixie ears were attached like little wings. His snuffling snout, tiny tusks and facial warts were the hallmarks of what his miniature self would one day become. As though his physical attributes weren’t becoming enough he proceeded to frolic like a lamb with the pure joy of being a baby warthog. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t alone in my admiration of the little hog.
I was naturally intrigued to find out more about Hick-Up’s predicament and how he had come to be adopted by humans. Subsequently, I was told the story of his hungry mum coming into Bush Suite in a desperate attempt to reach the lush green lawns. The staff found Hick-Up in dire straits having fallen down the steps of the camp. He was visibly weak and under threat of being abandoned. Usually warthogs have 2-8 offspring in a litter so it was likely that, if Hick-Up had had siblings they had not survived.
Warthogs are renowned for being adaptable, intelligent and have a strong sense of survival. They can sustain prolonged periods devoid of water, which is a common occurrence in this arid region of Africa.
So, if that was the scenario then what was the solution to the sorry drama played out at Bush Camp? Speaking to the AfriCat team I could emphasise with the challenge of making the right decision – whether to intervene or leave nature to it’s own ruthless, unsentimental but necessary devices. After careful consideration the verdict was that the baby should be taken in. After all, it was understood from prior experience at Okonjima that it is possible to release warthogs after hand-rearing.
The AfriCat/Okonjima team were operating a crèche system to ensure 24hr care for the characterful but vulnerable baby. It was still early days when malnutrition, infection and other physical threats could easily claim the life of a wee warthog.
To say I was excited at the prospect of hanging out with such a fascinating and affectionate animal would be a gross understatement. As it turned out this was an important day for Hick-Up, it was the first day he had gone down on his knees in true warthog style! Akin to a toddler taking their first steps this was a developmental moment.
He was very talkative. A sort of morse code of ‘grunts’ and ‘squeals’ seemed to be the language of the hog. Immediately he was following me around like a shoe magnet- incredible! In the wild his life would, of course depend on sticking close to his mothers’ side to avoid being taken by predators.
Hick-Up’s diet consisted of cows milk mixed with egg and glucose. He also had to have an iron supplement (which he protested about) twice daily. A little rub down with beeswax was also necessary to prevent his skin from drying out; adult warthogs wallow in mud to rehydrate.
We played ‘tag’ in the garden- boy could he move! Warthogs are speedy animals which run up to 30 mph to escape capture. He took corners like a Formula 1 motorcycle and was never more than feet from my side. Warthogs are omnivorous (eat everything) and, as such Hick-Up past his time foraging for beetles and snipping off tufts of grass to supplement his milk diet.
In the wild warthogs are not shy to squat in other animals burrows and Hick-Up certainly didn’t seem in the least bit self-conscious about sharing our bed. I thought it was particularly endearing the way that he would repeatedly ram into ones side for up to 20 minutes with his sticky strong snout before suddenly becoming still and gently ‘hiccuping’ into a deep sleep.
I left Okonjima with a hog shaped hole in my heart which will last for all eternity. I am left with the overwhelming and humbling remembrance that animals always give so much more than they ever take.