for National Geographic News
The strength of a unique male bond between a young hippopotamus and a 130-year-old tortoise will be tested later this spring when conservation workers introduce a female hippo to the mix.
The pending introduction serves as an intriguing plot twist to the unlikely story of a hippo and tortoise brought together at Haller Park wildlife sanctuary in Mombasa, Kenya, in the wake of the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami.
The conservationists hope the two hippos will bond with no objection from the tortoise, named Mzee. Such an outcome will allow Mzee's return to the safety of his original enclosure.
While other tortoises, monkeys, and antelope roam in that enclosure, Mzee has shown no affection toward any of them. But he has surprisingly become attached to the young hippo, Owen.
Owen, who weighed an estimated 660 pounds (300 kilograms) when he arrived at the park, was two-thirds the size of Mzee. He is now twice Mzee's size and still growing.
"He will grow to anywhere between three and four tonshe's gonna be a big male hippopotamus," said Paula Kahumbu, the general manager of Lafarge Ecosystems, the Kenyan environmental restoration firm that manages the wildlife sanctuary.
"He's already quite playful, already quite strong," she said. "He could injure Mzee at any moment. He's very childlike in his behavior. As he gets older he will get rougher. Mzee is not a flexible animalhe could be injured."
But how Mzee and Owen will react to the presence of Cleo, the female hippo, and a subsequent separation is unknown, Kahumbu said. If one cannot live without the other, some sort of accommodations will be made.
For now, the hippo and tortoise are best buddies. The story of their friendship, formed in the wake of the tsunami, has been helping people in the region cope with their own losses, Kahumbu said.
When the giant waves struck the coast of Kenya, Owen was wallowing with his herd in the ocean near the mouth of the Sabaki River. Too small to escape the waves with his family, he was stranded on a coral reef.
The next day residents of the village of Malindi rescued Owen with fishing nets.
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