Ignorance was bliss. Careering full-throttle down a narrow
channel in the reed-choked bay, minutes away from a gaudy sunset
over Botswana's Okavango Delta, we seemed to be in a secret
passage to paradise. Exotic birds, shockingly turquoise and
lilac, flew overhead. White storks waded the shallows. Impalas
grazed on the shore. There were no other boats, or people,
within miles. The channel was almost precisely the width of our
aluminum dinghy, and it occurred to me that boats must have
created this path. I guessed that each time a boat zipped
through--we were moving at a startling rate of speed--its
propellers cleared the waterway of reeds. I asked the guide
steering the outboard if this were true.
"No, no," he said, smiling. "Hippos make the channel. We call
this place Hippo Alley."
I ruminated on that a moment. I knew next to nothing about
hippopotamuses, but on my flight into the town of Maun, near the
delta, I'd heard one story that got my attention. My seatmate
happened to be a lady from Cape Town, South Africa, who was
going to visit her sister in Maun. During an otherwise ordinary
conversation, the lady said she was a little nervous about her
accommodations because two of her sister's neighbors had
recently been killed by a hippo. They all lived near a river,
and one sweltering night the neighbors had chosen to sleep
outside on their lawn. In the morning their bodies were
discovered mangled in the grass, nearly bitten in two by a
I asked my riverboat guide, who was in his 20s, "What happens if
we encounter a hippo in Hippo Alley?" It was clear to me that
even if we were able to stop before hurtling into the beast, we
would not be able to retreat. The reeds were too thick and the
channel too narrow to turn the boat around. Nor did the guide
have a gun.
November 17, 1997
The young Botswanan laughed. "Then, I'm afraid, we must swim,"
Gallows humor. Nothing like it. Fortunately, we did not run into
a hippo in Hippo Alley. Later, though, we found a herd of eight
hippos in a wide oxbow in the Okavango River. The cavalier guide
delighted in charging the hippos at full speed and turning the
boat hard to spray water in their direction. The tops of their
heads bobbed in the water, and each time one surfaced, it blew
air out of its upturned nostrils in an audible pfoooosh,
spouting somewhat like a whale. Later, doing some research, I
learned that this was not merely a breathing exercise. The
hippos were threatening us. It was insanity to be provoking
them. Eleven years earlier, on that same river, a guide and a
tourist from the game-watching camp at which I was staying were
killed by a hippo that overturned their boat. Ignorance,
however, was the operative word for the day, and all five of us
on this boat enjoyed the show as the guide kept risking our lives.
After returning to the States, I recounted my river adventure to
my father-in-law, who had been to Botswana a year earlier and
had stayed at a different camp. He exhaled deeply, stubbed out
his cigarette and said the closest to death he had ever come was
in a guide boat in the Okavango Delta--and he reminded me that
he'd fought in Korea. His guide had motored pell-mell past a
herd of perhaps 15 hippos and continued downstream before
pulling into shore some 200 yards away. The guide cut the
engine, and everyone began to climb out for a walk. The guide,
though, suddenly looked back. They'd obviously parked in the
hippos' territory. A hippo, and these behemoths average about
3,000 pounds, was galloping its way through the shallows.
Everyone scrambled back into the boat.
The hippo kept coming. Hippos can outrun a man, and this one was
now inside a hundred yards. The engine, luckily, started on the
first pull, but before the guide could finish executing a turn
in those accursed reeds, the charging hippo was nearly upon the
boat. Its huge mouth was open, and clearly visible in the
yawning pink-and-purple maw were a pair of foot-long, daggerlike
teeth that curved up from the lower jaw. Everyone made for the
bow as the hippo, just five yards behind, bounded along at the
same speed as the boat. After a few seconds of terror, the boat
finally pulled away.
It is time, long past time, to give the hippopotamus its due as a
killer. In Africa, the only continent on which modern
hippopotamuses are endemic, they are thought to kill more people
each year than lions, leopards, cape buffalo and elephants
combined, largely because human beings, who tend to live near
water, are more likely to come into contact with them. It is
also widely accepted--if unverifiable, since accurate numbers
are not kept throughout Africa--that the hippo sends more people
to an early grave than does the crocodile. A rough estimate is a
couple of hundred hippo-caused fatalities every year. Yet for
some reason this quivering mass of muscle and bottled-up rage
remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal kingdom.
Why don't small children and brave men have nightmares about
Hippopotamus amphibius, one of the most dangerous four-legged
mammals on earth? Crocodiles inspire fear and loathing, yet
there are men who wrestle them bare-handed. The lion is crowned
King of Beasts, but it can be trained to sit on a stool and roar
on command. Bears are made to dance, tigers to jump through
fiery hoops, killer whales to belly flop and elephants to stand
on their hind legs like giant poodles. When was the last time
you saw a hippopotamus wrestled into submission or cowering
before the circus whip?
Never. Like elusive white whales, giant squid and great white
sharks, hippos can't be made to perform for man's amusement. But
while novels and movies have made dark legends of those other
untamable creatures--Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and
Jaws--what literary opus has immortalized the noble hippo,
giving us goose bumps while describing its lethal ways? About
the only time a hippopotamus, whose name dates back some 3,000
years and is Greek for "river horse," was featured on the silver
screen, it was dressed in a tutu and dancing opposite ostriches
in Fantasia. Maybe if 19th-century hunters had mounted hippo
heads on their walls beside the heads of the buffalo, rhino and
leopards they shot, poets would have seen the hippo as something
other than fodder for nonsense rhyme.
He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again and found it was
"If this should stay to dine," he said,
"There won't be much for us!"
--LEWIS CARROLL, circa 1889
The sad truth is that the barrel-shaped hippo, whose layers of
fat provide insulation and whose two-inch-thick skin serves as a
natural wet suit, has long been victimized by Western
civilization's tendency to ridicule the corpulent.
I shoot the hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten 'em
--HILAIRE BELLOC, 1896
Well, shoot them men did, more for meat, fat and hides than for
any sport that hunting hippopotamuses might have afforded.
Shooting a hippo is about as challenging as potting the side of
a barn. Yet even today, on the eve of the 21st century, hippos
are under renewed hunting pressure. Since the 1989 worldwide ban
on the sale of ivory products, the demand has risen for hippo
teeth, which grow throughout the animal's life--the canines
reach an average length of 24 inches--do not yellow as much with
age, and are softer and easier to carve than elephant tusks.
(Briefly, in the 18th century, false teeth for humans were made
out of hippo teeth.) In 1988, the year before the ivory ban,
5,640 pounds of hippo teeth were exported from Africa. By 1991
the total had leaped more than fivefold, to 30,100 pounds, and
it has hovered at about that level ever since. As a result, the
hippo population in Uganda and Congo is falling. "It's a minor
problem now," says Henri Nsanjama, vice president of the World
Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C., "but if we don't act,
it could become a huge problem."
All told, some 150,000 hippos remain in the wild, almost
certainly the smallest population in recorded history. The
hippo's range, which in Roman times extended from the mouth of
the Nile all the way to Cape Town, has shrunk by roughly
half--from the southernmost reaches of the Sahara to South
Africa's northeastern coast.
Which may explain why hippopotamuses are so, well, flighty. That
may seem like a strange word to apply to a creature so utterly
earthbound as the hippo, but its temperament is as skittish as a
deer's. That shouldn't be so surprising, since both the hippo
and the deer are members of the mammalian order Artiodactyla:
even-toed ungulates whose 150 or so species include camels,
sheep, goats and cattle. "It's not that hippos are vicious or
mean," says David Bristow, a former game guide who is now the
editor of Getaway, a South African travel magazine. "They're
dangerous because they're unpredictable. Jittery is the best
word for them."
Bristow knows whereof he speaks. Two years ago he and a guide
were canoeing the Zambezi River just below Victoria Falls, in
Zimbabwe. The river there is wide and relatively calm, and
Bristow was relaxing in the bow, taking pictures. Everything was
still. Suddenly Bristow heard an almighty thump. "Without any
warning, a hippo had come up beneath the canoe," Bristow says.
"We were perched crosswise on its head, like a banana on the
head of a monkey. I turned around, and the guide, in the stern,
was rising to his feet. The hippo had taken a big chunk out of
the rear of the canoe. We dove in, and the hippo was thrashing
around, biting at anything that floated: my camera equipment,
the paddles, the canoe. The guide told me, 'Don't splash, but
swim for shore as fast as you can.'"
For the next 30 seconds, as they sidestroked for the bank, the
hippo savagely bit at everything in the vicinity of the canoe.
Then it stopped, looked around and caught sight of the two men.
It sank out of sight. All the men could see in the muddy water
"Can you tell where it is?" the guide asked Bristow.
"No," he replied, swimming faster. Suddenly a distinctive hippo
"bow wave" appeared on the surface. Hippos can propel themselves
through the water by running along the bottom--in clear water
you can see their submerged footpaths--or bounding off the
bottom like a child in the shallow end of a pool. They can also
hold their breath for up to five minutes. People who have
studied hippos claim that in the animals' underwater travels
they are remarkably graceful, not unlike those animated
ballerinas in Fantasia. But they displace so much water that
they create bow waves that reveal their position. Bristow,
swimming for his life, watched such a wave in terror as it drew
closer and closer, until, when it was just 10 yards from him, he
was able to scramble onto shore. The hippo surfaced, blew air
out of its nostrils, opened its huge mouth threateningly
(hippos' jaws can spread 150 degrees) and then retreated to the
depths of the river.
It is very rare, though not unheard of, for a hippopotamus to
chase someone from the water onto dry land. Later, Bristow heard
that a gigantic crocodile had been seen downstream with a baby
hippo in its jaws, and Bristow theorizes that he and his guide
were attacked by the enraged, grieving mother.
Hippopotamuses do not, however, require such concrete reason to
lash out with the worst intentions, according to William
Barklow, a biology professor at Framingham (Mass.) State College
who has studied hippos in Tanzania since 1989. Territorial and
suspicious by nature, "they generally will attack anything
strange or new that comes along," Barklow says. That includes
nosy scientists. By his own count, Barklow, who tapes the
underwater vocalizing of hippos, has been charged five or six
times. While setting up his microphones, he sometimes has to
wade into the shallows, which is where he's most at risk. He
tells his students to keep an eye out for bow waves and, if they
see one, to yell, "Charge!" So far Barklow has been able to stay
a step ahead of his subjects.
"I suspect hippos get blamed for a lot of deaths that aren't
really their fault," he says, "like when they overturn a canoe
and the people in it drown because they don't know how to swim.
Most hippopotamus attacks are defensive in nature, unless two
hippos are fighting each other. That's very dangerous because
the loser will often charge anything nearby."
Nsanjama, who was director of wildlife in Malawi before assuming
his post at the WWF, once saw a hippo redirect its aggression
with tragic results. A pair of males were fighting to determine
which would be the dominant bull in a territory--a common ritual
that sometimes is waged to the death. They were standing side by
side in the shallows of a river in Malawi, hooking each other
savagely with their lower canines, which hippos wield like
antlers. As the hippos fought, a canoe carrying women and
children passed by on the deep-water side of the river. The
hippo that was losing suddenly turned, gave chase and capsized
the canoe. All the occupants drowned.
The ill-tempered beast no doubt then skulked away to lick its
wounds, which do not heal easily in the muddy water in which
hippos spend their days. To recover, hippos sometimes retire,
for up to a week, to a thicket on dry land, with only periodic
forays into the water.
In the water an adult hippo has no natural enemies other than
man. On land, however, where hippos go at night to eat, they are
more vulnerable, edgier and far more dangerous to encounter. It
is there that young hippos--and even fully grown ones--can fall
prey to hyenas and lions.
In Botswana, guides tell of the hippo-surfing lions. A lion
leaps onto the back of a grazing hippo, and as the terrified
hippo races for the haven of the river, the lion tries to bite
through its back and sever its spinal cord. If the lion
succeeds, the hippo will be paralyzed and die slowly by
suffocation and dehydration. If the hippo reaches the water,
however, the lion must bail out.
"When they are left alone, hippos are the most peaceful,
mind-your-own-business animals," says Nsanjama. "The problems
arise because where there's water in Africa, you find people and
hippos. People grow crops, and hippos love to eat crops. To make
matters worse, hippos feed mostly at night. When people try to
protect the crops, they can be ambushed by a hippo."
Ambushed? By this mind-your-own-business, peace-loving creature?
But ambushed is a pretty good word. Hippopotamuses tend to have
pear-shaped territories of about 30 square kilometers, the
narrow part being where the hippos leave and reenter the water.
At dusk they leave the sanctuary of the river or lake where they
have basked all day, and they walk to their grazing grounds
along a trail that is easy to spot. Woe be unto the villager who
strolls down such a path at night.
Almost anyone who has spent any length of time in southern
Africa has a hippopotamus horror story. A seasoned guide at the
Tchau bush camp in the Okavango was riding in a 15-foot aluminum
boat with three other guides during his second day on the job.
They were making a trek upriver to fetch supplies, and after a
few minutes the boat hit a sandbar. Rankin was preparing to
check the outboard when suddenly the sandbar rose up on four
feet. They had hit a submerged hippo. It promptly flipped the
boat, dumping all four passengers into chest-deep,
crocodile-infested waters. As the men desperately fought the
current to keep the boat between themselves and the hippo, the
angry animal repeatedly chomped into the aluminum. Then,
suddenly, it was over--the hippo decided aluminum was not to its
liking and quietly slipped away.
If the hippopotamus fails to nail you, there's often a crocodile
waiting in the wings. Crocs and hippos share the same habitat in
an uneasy truce. A crocodile will not bother a fully grown
hippopotamus, but it will catch and eat a baby hippo if given a
chance. The only time the opportunity presents itself is when
the mother hippo is off grazing at night and must leave its
youngster alone, hidden in the reeds.
There's an extraordinary videotape, taken by an amateur, that is
something of a cult item among naturalists in southern Africa.
It shows a crocodile attacking an impala while a hippopotamus
basks in the water nearby. Crocodiles must drown their victims
to kill them, but in this instance the water was only a couple
of feet deep. As the crocodile thrashes about with the impala's
legs in his grip, the antelope's head remains above the water.
This goes on for several minutes until the hippo apparently can
take it no longer. It then runs over and bites at the crocodile,
chasing it away.
The impala's legs, though, are ruined. The animal can't rise to
its feet and leave the water, where the crocodile is still
lurking. The hippo returns to its previous position, and the
crocodile slithers back toward its wounded prey. The hippo sees
what is coming, and it again runs over and chases the crocodile
away from the impala. Then, in an extraordinary display, the
hippo pushes the impala toward the shore with its head until the
antelope is lying on the sand. When the impala still cannot rise
to its feet, the hippo nudges it with its nose, seemingly trying
to prod it to move. Finally the hippo gives up and returns to
the water. Says Bristow, "No one had ever recorded [what appears
to be] compassion between different types of wild animals before."
Barklow, the biology professor, dismisses this as mere
sentiment, saying a hippopotamus is incapable of compassion, and
the reaction of this hippo was purely instinctive. A crocodile's
attacking something nearby must have triggered a protective urge
in the hippo that had nothing to do with the plight of the
impala. Barklow calls the hippo's action "wasted energy."
That's the problem with scientists. They take what little
romance is left in the world and try to wring the life out of it
with cold-hearted explication. The beauty of literary types such
as Bristow, a naturalist who has published a number of books on
outdoor life in southern Africa, is that they cannot be
dissuaded by such logic, and they continue to find wonder and
romance everywhere they look. At a dinner party that Bristow
attended a few years ago, for example, he stumbled upon the
hippo story to end all hippo stories--a sort of modern Jungle
Book that, by its conclusion, had encompassed many of the wild
animals in Africa.
There was a man at the dinner party whom we shall call Bill. He
had his arm in a sling, and Bristow asked him what had happened.
Bill, a television cameraman by profession, told him he had
injured the arm three weeks earlier while canoeing down the
Zambezi, a favorite adventure-travel destination in Africa. Bill
and two companions were in the third of three canoes in an
expedition when a hippopotamus caused them to capsize.
Bill and his companions were unhurt, but they found themselves
marooned on a sandbar knee-deep in the middle of the
crocodile-infested river. The other canoes were already out of
sight. The current was significant, and they waited for more
than an hour for help to come. Finally, with darkness
approaching, Bill volunteered to swim to shore and try to get
help. The other two chose to stay put. Bill had almost made it
to safety when, near the bank, he was grabbed by a crocodile.
The croc, with its jaws clamped onto Bill's left arm, began to
twirl him in the water. Bill felt his left shoulder come out of
its socket as he spun beneath the surface. He was close to
blacking out when he remembered that a crocodile has a flap in
the back of its mouth. The flap prevents water from rushing down
the crocodile's throat when its mouth is clasped onto its prey.
With his free right arm, Bill reached into the crocodile's
mouth, found the flap and pushed it open. Water rushed down its
throat, and the crocodile, now in danger of drowning, released
Bill dragged himself to shore. His left arm was torn and
immobile, utterly useless. Still, he plunged into the jungle and
started making his way downstream, hoping to find the campsite
of his friends from the other two canoes. Meanwhile, the two men
he had left on the sandbar were facing crocodile problems of
their own. They counted more than a dozen in the water nearby.
Almost providentially, a canoe paddle floated downstream to
them. They grabbed it and spent a sleepless night on the
sandbar, using the paddle to fend off any crocodile that cruised
Bill wasn't faring so well. After thrashing through the jungle
for a while, he began to hear noises. Little yelps and yips
followed him, and he realized he was being trailed by a pack of
hyenas. He ran until he was exhausted. Then he tried to climb a
tree. He found that because of his injured arm, he couldn't. As
night fell, Bill sat with his back to the tree. He hoped that if
he remained quiet, the hyenas might not find him. Then, despite
his best intentions, he fell asleep.
He awoke at first light, aching and mildly surprised not to have
been torn apart during the night. Beside him he discovered the
reason, and he couldn't believe his eyes. Those who hear the
story cannot believe their ears. A lone cape buffalo, one of the
most dangerous animals in Africa, had curled up next to him
during the night. Whether by accident or design, it had
protected him from the pack of hyenas. Bill was later told the
buffalo was probably an old male that had recently lost a
challenge by a younger bull. Possibly it was lonely. A professor
of biology no doubt would explain the old bull's actions as
emotionless instinct. But whatever the explanation, Bill is
convinced that the animal saved his life.
Bill resumed his quest for help, and within an hour he stumbled
into the camp of his friends. They returned upriver, and there,
still swinging that paddle at any crocodile that came by, were
the other two men. Eighteen hours after they had been
overturned, all three paddlers were safe. It was not until they
reached civilization and reported their adventures to a park
ranger that the identity of the owner of the canoe paddle was
established. He was another ranger from upriver. He had been
killed the day before by a hippo, literally bitten in half.
Bristow swears the story is true, but if Bill is capable of
inventing such a yarn, or even half of such a yarn, he should
immediately begin work on a novel about a great white hippo
called, say, Chalmers, and a mad, one-legged hunter on safari.
Toward thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering hippo;
to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at
thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee....
Only then, I'm afraid, will the hippo be afforded the respect it
deserves. Explain why, when cardinals, lions, tigers, eagles,
terrapins, alligators, ducks, dolphins, bulldogs, buffalo and
bears are all employed as mascots, no team has adopted the
hippo? Tough, indomitable, fractious and thick-skinned, the
Hippos would stomp the Gators, chomp the Lions and bite the
Rangers in two.
At the bottom of its heart the hippo is really a sensitive New
Age guy, a four-toed ungulate version of John Madden, as
beautifully portrayed in The Hippopotamus Song, by Michael
Flanders and Donald Swann.
A bold Hippopotamus was standing one day
On the banks of the cool Shalimar
He gazed at the bottom as it peacefully lay
By the light of the evening star
Away on the hilltop sat combing her hair
His fair Hippopotamine maid
The Hippopotamus was no ignoramus
And sang her this sweet serenade
Mud! mud! glorious mud!
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So, follow me, follow, down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud.