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the hippoThe African Hippo: Don’t Ever Call Him "Fatty" To His Face!
by Marjorie Dorfman

What is the story behind this strange looking creature that has a face like a pig, the same DNA as a whale and a body like a bulldozer? Why is it considered one of Africa’s most dangerous creatures? Read on for some answers, but don’t forget to get out of the way if one is anywhere near you!

More than four hundred people in Africa have been killed by rampaging hippos. This figure far exceeds the death toll from lions, tigers or any other wild animal. This seems astounding, considering the fact that the pudgy, almost comic-looking creatures don’t appear as if they could even run fast enough to be dangerous. But they can and often do outrun humans, capable of galloping at 18 mph in an emergency and about half that speed in a trot. They can turn on a dime and climb steep banks, but oddly they are unable to jump and won’t even step over obstacles. If you don’t take my word for it, you might end up the next casualty in this terrifying statistic. Many of the famous African explorers, including Stanley, Livingstone, Burton, Selous, Speke and DuChaillu, all had boating mishaps involving hippos. They all considered the creature to be an underestimated and malicious adversary.

hippopotamusHippos are highly aggressive and fiercely protective of their turf and young. They have little fear of humans, who might mistake their yawn as a sign of sleepiness. It is, actually, a most threatening gesture, not to mention what’s behind it; namely, long, razor-sharp canine teeth which are capable of biting a small boat in half (not to mention the motor and anyone who might be in the boat). A hunter named Spencer Tyron was killed while hunting near the shores of Lake Rukwa in Tanzania. A bull hippo overturned the canoe from which he was shooting and bit off his head at the shoulders. (Africa’s own natural guillotine, and the poor guy didn’t even have a chance to exclaim, "let them eat cake.")

hippo eats grassWeighing in at about 4,000 pounds, the hippo is hardly a candidate for Weight Watchers. His (or her) weight makes him (or her) the third largest land animal in the world after the white rhino and the elephant, which is the largest. The word hippopotamus is a combination of two Greek words meaning river horse. Although they once thrived in Asia and parts of Europe, today hippos are found mostly in Africa, south of the Sahara and along the length of the Nile River in deep water with nearby reeds and grasslands. They also inhabit saltwater areas near river mouths and some lakes in Central Africa. These hoofed vegetarians feed nocturnally on grass, fallen fruit and occasionally cultivated crops such as corn or sugar cane (and sometimes on those farmers who grow those crops if they don’t get out of the way in time). Hippos can and sometimes do inflict a great deal of damage to local economies.

They spend most of their days sleeping in water deep enough to cover their massive bodies. They must submerge because their thin, smooth and delicate skin is extremely vulnerable to overheating and dehydration. Its only protection is the red, oily liquid the animals exude, which keeps the skin moist and protected when the animals are out of the water. This is the source of the ancient myth that hippos sweat blood instead of well, sweat. They can stay underwater for up to five minutes and they avoid rapids, preferring gently sloping riverbeds where herds can rest half-submerged and calves can nurse without swimming. Baby hippos swim from the moment they are born because their birth takes place underwater. The eyes and nostrils, which are located at the top of their heads, protrude, allowing vision and breath while the creatures are submerged.

Hippos are not strictly nocturnal, but typically sleep by day and graze by night on the grasses along the shores of the rivers they inhabit, sometimes as much as 130 pounds of vegetation per day! (Talk about not enough roughage in one’s diet!) They are efficient grazers, their lips being two feet wide and their mouths the second largest in the world (next to the white rhino and perhaps Hedda Hopper and/or Rhona Barrett). They are surprisingly graceful in the water, despite their clumsy appearance on land. It is their specific gravity that permits them to sink to the bottom of rivers and amble along in search of company, entertainment or dinner. Recent DNA studies suggest that hippos are more closely related to Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) than to any other even-toed hoofed animals, which might explain their clearly amphibious nature.

hippo hosts birdDespite the fact that hippos can wreak destruction, they also provide a balance in nature’s ecosystem. They defecate in water, and the dung provides essential basic elements for the food chain. Tiny microorganisms feed on it and then larger animals feed on those organisms. On land, hippos forge trails through vegetation that other animals use for easy access to waterholes. Due to the fact that their favorite food is short grass, they keep these grasses well trimmed, which deters forest fires. Hippos are also hosts to birds, such as hammerhead storks and cattle egrets who use them as perches for fishing while they stand in water. Birds pick flies, ticks and other insects off the skin of hippos, making their relationship a mutual admiration society.

Hippos are considered a vulnerable species, primarily because humans have excessively hunted them for their meat, fat, ivory teeth and hides. (No wonder they want to get even sometimes.) Unlike elephant tusks, hippo teeth do not yellow with age and because of that are very desirable on the black market. Hippo and elephant bone were used in the creation of that famous set of teeth worn by George Washington that was erroneously believed to be made of wood. Hippos are also hunted for sport because of the damage they incur, and the last of the wild hippos are unnaturally compressed into remaining suitable habitats. Their life span in the wild is forty-five years, forty-nine years in captivity.

fierce hippoRespect the hippo as one of God’s creations (however many mistakes seem to have been made). And if you see one anywhere near where you are, say "Hi Ho Hippo." Do this while losing no time to consider yourself mounted on a fast stallion whose ears are attuned to your final cry of "Hi Ho Silver, AWAY!"

Did you know . . .?

See this related article:
The Elephant: A Reluctant Potentate

animal news

A great book about hippos:


by Melissa S. Cole

Examines the life of the hippopotamus, pointing out differences between the two remaining species and the impact humans have had, and continue to have, on these African mammals. Cole succeeds in expressing the amazing size and shape of her subjects, but it is the photos that bring it home – photos of a hippo's feet, built like small trees to support the weight; or photos of hippos swimming, where, in their element, they are graceful, even gleeful looking. A most interesting read!

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