MODIMOLLE, South Africa – What started out as a day of hope for Solly the hippo turned to tragedy when rescuers were unable to save the 3-ton beast from the swimming pool he plunged into after being chased from his herd.
Solly's plight captivated animal lovers and his death Friday left many in tears, with some blaming a vet who arrived too late.
"It started out as a happy story and now it's a tragic story. It's devastating," said Ruby Ferreira, manager of the game preserve lodge where the hippopotamus had been stuck in the swimming pool since Tuesday.
The 4-year-old hippo had been chased from his herd by dominant males when he wandered into the Monate Conservation Lodge and plopped into its 8-foot-deep pool. Although he was able to swim freely, he couldn't get out because the pool has no steps.
Lodge workers dubbed him Solly, and the hippo's plight captivated South Africans, with live TV broadcasts from the pool and newspaper headlines like "It's all systems go for the rescue of Solly the hippo."
Someone even set up a Twitter account on Solly's behalf and tweeted purported hippo quotes.
Then on Friday morning, the TV news carried a scrolling headline announcing the animal's death.
Solly's demise left several of those involved pointing fingers of blame.
Ferreira said a game capture team had been waiting since Thursday for a veterinarian to show up to tranquilize Solly and oversee the operation to hoist him out with a crane.
By early Friday, the hippo was showing signs of stress and was no longer able to stand in the pool, which had been drained of most of its water in preparation for the rescue.
Lying in the murky, feces-strewn water, he emerged occasionally for air, sighing anxiously as he gazed at journalists gathering around the pool.
"He was not as perky this morning, more agitated, like he was irritated. I think because he wanted to get out of the pool," Ferreira told South Africa Press Association. "We've been waiting for the vets and I think they were just a bit too late."
Then, just as veterinarian Dr. Alex Lewis arrived, the hippo tried one last time to get to his feet. He couldn't make it. Exhausted, he dropped his head into the knee-deep water, making a splash, then lay still.
Wildlife rescue expert Simon Prinsloo was in tears as he confirmed to The Associated Press that Solly was dead. Only minutes earlier, Prinsloo had been pouring water from a hose onto the hippo in the warm and humid climate.
Ferreira said hippos are sensitive creatures and Solly's stress level had probably been rising since he was forced from his group, called a pod, and took shelter in the pool. Once inside, he couldn't get out, adding to his stress.
"It all just added up and added up," she said.
A wildlife activist cried as Solly's lifeless body was hoisted from the pool, with the vet standing on it, and placed in an orange animal trailer.
When reporters questioned Lewis about not arriving earlier, the vet said he couldn't have saved the animal anyway because he was in such poor condition from the stress over fighting for a position in his herd. Lewis said he told the lodge owners to feed the hippo to build up his strength, and workers had been giving him hay and grass since Tuesday.
Prinsloo said Solly was lucky to have stayed alive as long as he did because most hippos don't survive fights with dominant males.
Doreen Cronje, a guest at the lodge, said she, like everyone gathered for the rescue, had hoped for a happier outcome.
"Especially here in South Africa, we care a lot about our animals," she said.