One year after a devastating flood that killed 21 people and sent zoo animals into the streets of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, both the city’s zoo and its famous wandering hippopotamus, Begi, are back in shape.
On June 13, 2015, flood waters lifted Begi and other animals out of their downtown enclosures, creating an apocalyptic tableau of a city of 1.1 million people overrun by water and beasts. Some 230 animals drowned or were shot by police to prevent attacks on humans. Still, one man was mauled to death by an escaped tiger three days after the disaster.
It was on that tragic night that Begi (“hippo”) offered comic relief as he sauntered around a central highway that cuts through the heart of Tbilisi. Next morning, he was sighted passing stately by a downtown Swatch store, pausing to munch phlegmatically on tree leaves. A tranquilizer and some impromptu volunteers, herding him like a cow, eventually returned Begi to the zoo.
“He had a bit of a neurosis going on for some time, was moody, declined food and would not go for a swim,” recounted 57-year-old Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze, recalling the period after Begi’s brief escape to the urban jungle. But after some medication and lots of care, “Begi is quite happy now.”
“Water is his element, so he did not suffer from the flood that much,” Gurielidze added.
Neither did the crocodile, which also briefly escaped to go preying on fellow zoo animals.
Begi became an instant online sensation in Georgia, with social media displaying Photoshopped images of him sporting sunglasses and walking away from an explosion (#Thug Life). Reuters and TIME Magazine went on to rate the downtown hippo images as among the best photos of 2015.
Today, Begi displays dignified indifference to the attention, patiently allowing himself to be photographed for a magazine. At the age of 17, he is a teenage star and a socially responsible one, too, lending his image to flood-recovery fundraisers.
“We needed an image that is positive and optimistic, and inspired action. The hippo had it all,” said Bidzina Kumsiashvili, co-founder of the Tbilisi Hippo Fund, which helps flood victims and trains volunteers in disaster relief. Since the flood, the Fund has raised about 80,000 laris ($37,559), in part through the sale of t-shirts with Begi’s print on them. “We got 10,000 sold in a single day,” Kumsiashvili added.
But the zoo’s management complains that flood-relief fundraising overlooked their needs. “Lots of groups capitalized on the image of our hippo to raise money, but we did not get a penny out of it,” Gurielidze claimed.
Hundreds of Tbilisi residents volunteered to help clean debris out of the zoo, but, ultimately, Gurielidze said, rebuilding the state-financed zoo was a DIY effort. “We used whatever money, skill and materials we could scrape together to restore the cages,” Gurielidze said.
The Tbilisi Hippo Fund says it chose to focus on helping human victims, filling the gaps left by the city government, which took its time to come up a with an all-encompassing assistance plan. An attempt at cooperation between the Fund and the zoo fell through.
Gurielidze agrees, though, that helping the estimated 1,041 people who, according to the mayor’s office, lost their homes, loved ones or livelihoods (as taxi drivers when they lost their cars) was the right priority for the relief aid. The World Bank estimated the overall damage at about $119 million, according to a document the city government previously shared with EurasiaNet.org.
The national and city governments provided just over 35 million laris (over $16.5 million) and 9.9 million laris ($4.6 million), respectively. Another 26.3 million laris ($12.2 million) came from corporate, individual, international development agency, non-profit and government agency contributions, the Mayor’s Office said. Almost $5 million, the largest private donation, came from the Cartu Group, a business holding founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the influential ex-prime minister who has a storied private zoo of his own.
Exactly how much the government gave to the zoo is unclear, however. The Mayor’s Office states that 40 million lari (about $18.78 million) went to infrastructure, which includes zoo renovations and construction of a new zoo. Another 30 million ($14.08 million) went to families whose houses were destroyed by the flood.
The municipality did pay for cleaning and repaving the zoo’s walkways, and for restoring Begi’s quarters, but the bulk of its assistance went toward paying half of the cost for a 1.5-million-lari (over $700,000) wall around a planned new zoo. Spread over 48 hectares (118 acres) in the city’s outskirts, the new zoo is five times the size of the old one, and is perched on high grounds overlooking a reservoir.
The new park will be years in the making, however. Meanwhile, the old zoo remains plunked precariously in the gully of the Vera Creek, a normally timid flow responsible for last year’s deluge. Torrential rain and a massive mudslide caused the creek to overflow, destroying 76 homes and sweeping cars off a neighboring freeway.
On the eve of the disaster’s anniversary, heavy rains returned to Tbilisi for a week, spreading a sense of anxiety. Except for the excitable lemurs, most of the zoo’s tenants, including Begi, retreated under cover. With memories of the 2015 flood still fresh, traffic was thin on the nearby freeway even at rush hour.
To mark the anniversary, the zoo on June 13 offered free entrance, charity auctions, an exhibit of children's paintings, and a display of photos from the flood.
Precautions for a repeat of the disaster have been taken. Most cages are now located on higher ground and a flood-warning system has been installed. Foreign zoos also have helped replenish the Tbilisi zoo’s wildlife, which is now back to its pre-flood number of 600.
“We are getting lots of offers from zoos around the world, but given our restraints, we are taking only those animals that can do fine in our climate,” Gurielidze said.
New arrivals include a camel, llamas, macaw parrots and a whole tribe of baboons.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.