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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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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 him.

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 within range.

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