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What Big Mouths They Have
E.M. Swift
November 17, 1997
Travelers in Africa who run afoul of hippos may not live to tell the tale
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November 17, 1997

What Big Mouths They Have

Travelers in Africa who run afoul of hippos may not live to tell the tale

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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
A Hippopotamus
"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 were bubbles.

"Can you tell where it is?" the guide asked Bristow.

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