Hippo Orphans Charlie and Moomin Return to the Wild

Monday 13 February 2023

Helping Rhinos in partnership with the Zululand Rhino Orphanage (ZRO) recently released hippo orphans Charlie and Moomin back into the wild.

The two hippos’ journey from being orphaned to forming a little hippo pod in a rhino orphanage to their subsequent release is one of courage and unlikely friendships. 

This is an incredible achievement. Charlie and Moomin were at the orphanage for nearly six years. Rewilding is a long process that involves a lot of hard work with many challenges along the way but for those involved with wildlife conservation, it is all worthwhile. Charlie and Moomin belong in the wild.

Thank you to all Helping Rhinos hippo orphan adopters for their support in making this rewilding possible.

The importance of rewilding

Releasing the hippo orphans back into the wild is a very important part of conservation and integral to the future of the species and other wildlife. Hippos play a critical role in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems. They spend more than half of the day submerged in water, stirring up mud and dropping dung as they roam which in turn helps fish and insect populations. Once found throughout all sub-Saharan Africa, hippo populations have declined considerably due to habitat loss and hunting. 

Zululand Rhino Orphanage is the only dedicated rhino orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and plays a key role in the future of the area’s rhino population. Its primary goals are to rescue orphaned and injured rhino calves and to care for them until they are healthy and old enough to be returned to the wild where they belong. 

The success of rewilding can already be seen in the release back to the wild of black rhino Storm and white rhinos Makhosi and Mpilo and Khula, Bhanoyi and Zimisele.

The addition of two hippos to a rhino orphanage is unusual, but the process of rescue, rehabilitation and eventual rewilding are similar. 

WATCH the moment Charlie and Moomin returned to the wild

Preparation for rewilding

Adoption funds raised over subsequent years enabled the orphanage to extend the hippos’ wilderness area giving them more natural grazing and allowing them to be as independent as possible from orphanage staff. The team at the orphanage gradually began to take a step back, cutting all interactions apart from their afternoon feeding. Charlie and Moomin carried on with their normal activities such as swimming in their dam or walking through the bushes.

When it became apparent Charlie and Moomin were ready to be rewilded, one of the key things that needed to happen was to completely remove all human interaction. This began to happen quite naturally as over the months leading up to their release, Charlie and Moomin were becoming less and less interested in contact with their carers. The carers would drop food (teff and lucerne) nearby using a tractor and try to get a distant visual of them to make sure they were still healthy but at the same time keeping a reasonable distance to encourage independence. 

New fences were installed to separate the hippos from both the orphanage compound and the reserve. Then gradually over a period of time, the fence between the hippos dam and the reserve were removed. Once the fences were down, it wasn’t long before both hippos began to explore their new surroundings away from the orphanage. Now that they are out in the wild, the team will still be keeping a close eye on them. It is essential that they are given time to settle under the safe but distant watch of those who once cared for them.

Charlie and Moomin’s journey to a life in the wild

With the dedicated care, attention and love from the orphanage staff, and the support of Helping Rhinos’ wonderful adopters, these two hippos have grown from vulnerable, orphaned calves, to best buddies ready to take on the outside world. Here’s a reminder of their early stories:


Charlie was abandoned by his pod at just two days old. He was rescued and taken to a specialist rehab centre where it soon became apparent that he was probably premature and had a weak suck reflex. He needed constant care and monitoring, so much so that for the first few nights he slept curled up on his carer’s tummy. 

Charlie was given full cream milk enriched with egg yolks and mineral and vitamin supplements for the first few weeks in order to try to match his mother’s milk. Hippo milk is high in fat and concentrated. Despite being such a young hippo calf, Charlie developed a big personality and responded well to care, rapidly regaining strength and appetite, acting the clown, playing and running around with his mouth open. 

After two weeks at the orphanage, he was joined by a little rhino orphan called Makhosi. Rhino orphan Makhosi who was rescued as a newborn calf and was given her name by the Zulu Royal family who witnessed the rescue team trying to stabilise her condition enroute to the orphanage. Both Charlie and Makhosi were very young when they were orphaned and although they were of a different species, the two formed a very strong friendship and were close companions, bonding after the ordeals they had both been through. Makhosi was rewilded in 2020 with rhino orphan Mpilo.

Whilst the friendship between Makhosi and Charlie was important for both of them after the traumas they had experienced, it became apparent that Charlie needed to learn how to be a hippo and not a rhino. Charlie was spending too much time playing with Makhosi and the other rhino orphans and not going into water for prolonged periods as is normal and essential for hippos. Hippos need to spend a lot of time submerged in water because their skin is extremely sensitive to direct sunlight.

At first Charlie was not that keen on water, which was quite unusual for a hippo. But with gentle persuasion, being sprayed by a hosepipe, he was gradually encouraged to enjoy water. As Charlie grew older, it became important for him to be prepared to be released back into the wild. Unfortunately, male hippo calves are difficult to introduce to existing pods and are often attacked by dominant bulls so it was imperative that a female companion be found for him. Enter Moomin, a young female hippo orphan.


Little Moomin was found on a game reserve in the Eastern Cape in July 2017. She was found huddled up next to her dead mother’s body. It is unknown why Moomin’s mother passed away but she left behind a little three month old calf.

In September 2017, contact was made between the Zululand Rhino Orphanage and the reserve – and it was decided to get Moomin and Charlie together. After two days of Charlie and Moomin ‘chatting’ through a fence, Moomin was introduced into Charlie’s boma and it wasn’t long before they developed a very close friendship spending almost 60% of their day in the water where they chat away and nap in-between. They became a real hippo pod. 

Charlie and Moomin still need your help

It hasn’t been easy getting these two hippos back to the wild, but it is certainly a momentous occasion that helps to remind us just how important it is to work to save every orphaned hippo or rhino we can and how vital the work of our wonderful partners on the ground is. And of course, we could not do this without all our wonderful supporters who have adopted Charlie or Moomin (and if you’re yet to join our adoption programme, you can adopt any of our rewilded orphans here). 

However, getting Charlie and Moomin to the point of release involves a great deal of support, effort and funding. They may now be living in the wild, but they still need your support and will do for life. Like the resources required when they were young, vulnerable calves, the cost of monitoring them in the wild is still borne by ZRO and Helping Rhinos. 

Through our Rhino Orphans adoption programme, Helping Rhinos provides funding to care for ALL the orphans from the moment they arrive at the orphanage to the monitoring and support they receive when out in the wild. 

Funds raised from our supporters’ adoptions are used for all the monitoring costs such as vehicle use and maintenance, telemetry sets, binoculars and cameras to assess the rewilded animals’ condition as well as any supplementary food they might require, ensuring they stay in good condition while they get used to a life in the wild.

The success of Helping Rhinos and ZRO’s rewilding programme is indeed something to celebrate. It just goes to show that with the right love, care and attention, Charlie and Moomin will have a great chance at a future back in the wild where they belong and where they can eventually contribute to future generations of hippo for many years to come.

Adopt Charlie and Moomin

Donate to Zululand Rhino Orphanage