Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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October 2011 | Published in African Outfitter

Hippopotamus - A Curious And Clever Beast by Peter Flack

The late Dr. Lucas Potgieter read and commented on many of my articles before they went off to editors or publishers. He was often my litmus test as to whether or not a story was up to scratch. He was also kind enough to write the foreword to my second book, Tales of a Trophy Hunter in Africa. As such, I was pleased to be asked to submit an article for inclusion in this issue in honour of a great hunter and human being. Unfortunately, Lucas never read this story. I hope he would have enjoyed it. I will miss his comments.

When I was growing up you could buy four small square pieces of Chappies bubblegum in their characteristic yellow, red and blue striped wrappings for a cent. Printed inside the wrappings were a series of questions all beginning, "Did you know that ..." followed by some arcane and arbitrary piece of information. I was addicted to the gum and the questions which probably explain at least some of this article.

Did you know, for example, that archaeologists can trace back the ancestors of hippopotamus amphibius for some 47 million years although it took another 25 million years before the beast began to resemble the animal we know today and which, for the last million years or so, has remained largely the same? In their earliest form they looked something like a sea lion, had webbed feet and a powerful tail which they used to move through the water. Their closest relatives were whales, dolphins and porpoises, something I will return to later.

For whatever reason, I have never been afraid of wild animals in Africa. Yes, I have always treated them with respect and never tried to take liberties with them, but afraid? No. With the exception of two that is - crocodiles and hippos.

My earliest exposure to hippos occurred when I was tracking a wounded zebra with Hammer, an expert Shona tracker from Chiredzi, although already an old man back then in the 1970s. The tracks traced a path along the side of a koppie and, as the hillock tapered downwards and met the plains, the border between the two consisted of a rumpled mess of carelessly strewn boulders and rocks. We were almost level with the rocks some 20 paces to our right when Hammer stopped so suddenly I almost walked into him. Before I could say a word, he turned to me with his forefinger to his lips in that universal sign to keep quiet and began backing away. Too late! One of the boulders stood up and transformed itself into a huge bus bodied behemoth! Hammer and I simply turned and fled helter skelter. Me to the nearest tree and Hammer? I don't know. Hammer simply vanished.

Much later, after the hippo had ambled off and, after much calling and whistling, we came together again, it didn't seem necessary to go into the whys and wherefores of our different and ignominious escape routes. What was more interesting was trying to work out what the hippo had been doing some six kilometres from the nearest water in the heat of the day and why its skin was so red. Hammer said it was because hippos sweated blood but ...

Did you know that when hippos are exposed to the sun they exude a viscous red fluid from a gland in their hairless skin which not only helps keep it supple and pliable, protects it from the UV rays of the sun but also regulates the hippo's body temperature? Red it certainly is but blood it certainly isn't! Glen Feldake in his wonderfully interesting pamphlet entitled simply, Hippos, noted that this fluid, when added to bacteria in laboratory tests, caused the bacteria to stop growing so, in a way, hippos produced their own antibiotic shield which, given the dirty dung filled water in which they lived, has probably been a life saver.

My next two encounters with hippos were much closer to water. The first was in the Okavango Swamps. I was being poled in a mokoro towards an island where we hoped to glass for situtunga. As we skirted a deep black lily clad pond, two things immediately and simultaneously grabbed my attention - the snapping and crashing of papyrus stalks to my right and the polers frantically changing course to deeper water to the left. Within seconds the reeds parted and the huge 2 000 kilogram great grey shape of a flying hippopotamus filled my vision. This was the bomb drop to end all bomb drops and, how we were not overturned and flung into the water along with our rifles, cameras and lunch box, was a tribute to our water bushmen's skills.

Now, did you know that the really big ones can grow to 3 000 kilograms in weight?

I waited anxiously and expectantly for the hippo to attack but nothing happened. Two to three minutes passed as I waited barely daring to draw breath while I strangled my puny .458 with both hands. Then, about 50 metres away, a hippo surfaced with a clutch of lilies draped over its broad and bulbous head, its tiny ears flicking like crazy. It looked, if anything, almost comical. The tension was broken and we poled on to the island where I not only nearly killed myself when the tree branch I was sitting on broke, but also shot my first, and a very decent, Zambezi situtunga at that!

Did you know that hippos can remain under water for much longer than two to three minutes at a time? They can do so because, as carbon dioxide builds up in their blood stream, it slows their heart rate. Blood flow is reduced to parts of the body where it is not needed and concentrated on where it is. The heart rate of a hippo walking on the bottom of a river - no, they do not swim - can drop to half of what it was when breathing air, a feature also found in dolphins.

Everyone tells you never to come between a hippo and the water but not many tell you what to do when you are in the water already and the hippo is on the land. When you are both in the water there are many tales of hippos attacking people and boats. In The Great and Small Game of Africa published by Rowland Ward in 1899 and edited by H.A Bryden, he writes, " ... old bulls and cows with very young calves often attack canoes most viciously. And, after capsizing them, will sometimes pursue and kill by a bite one or more of their occupants. A hippopotamus cow with a very small calf attacked a canoe of mine on the Upper Zambezi in 1888. She first came up beneath it, throwing one end out of the water, then made a second attack, and, raising her huge head aloft, laid it across the canoe and sank it."

Some people speculate that, because hippos, especially those with young, act aggressively towards crocodiles, the reason they attack canoes is because, at water level, they resemble crocs. Other people argue that the reason crocs attack canoes is that, to a croc, at water level, they look like sosaties.

On the second occasion I had the pants scared off me by a hippo, I was walking along the edge of the aptly named Crocodile River minding my own business when something caught my attention in the water. As best I can describe it, the water appeared to form a glassy bulge which moved briskly across the sluggishly flowing current in my direction. It took me a moment to change gears and realise that there could be only one animal capable of producing this kind of effect and it was too darned close for comfort. I turned and scrambled up the steep side of the bank, concentrating hard on not slipping, and ran into the tree line. I turned around just in time to see the irritable animal emerge from the water. It trundled over to the bank which was fortunately too steep for it to climb at that point but I did not dilly dally to find out whether the sea cow was able to find a more accessible part of the bank.

In retrospect, what bothered me about the encounter was that I had not been bothering the hippo or anyone else for that matter. The attack, because that it was it was, was entirely unprovoked. Nothing I had been doing could have been construed as any kind of threat let alone an imposition. I wrote off the experience to a hippo that had been crossed in love or one who had lost a battle to a rival. The problem for the unwary, however, is in not knowing when you may come across such an animal.

It is precisely this kind of irritable unpredictability that helps give hippos such a bad name and, if I was given a Rand for every time someone has told me that hippos are responsible for more deaths on the African continent than any other animal, I could afford to spend a good weekend at a luxury game lodge. But is this so?

One writer, Alexander Lake, who I confess sometimes strains my credulity to breaking point, has this to say in his book, Killers in Africa, "When a hippo plays you a dirty trick, you can't stay angry at him for long. His most violent moods are funny. Despite numerous tales of his stentor-voiced rampages, he's really no more dangerous than a domestic Berkshire boar. Almost everyone loves a hippo." Well, not me.

Contrast this, however, with the statement of Piet Wessels, a professional crocodile hunter quoted with approval by Denis Holman in his story, A Canoe Safari, "I've hunted the Big Five and I don't care what anyone says, in my opinion the hippo is certainly the most aggressive and dangerous customer on land or water ... It leads a good life with few enemies to worry about but, hey, it's a troublemaker with the weight and power to make itself felt. Twice I've had a hippo bite the side of my canoe, and at least a dozen times one has tried to climb aboard. Once on the Manyara River, a big hippo came flying off the bank, belly-flopping on the water nearly on top of the canoe taking two of our children and some of their school friends on a trip down river. Not content with that, it chased them round a bend in the river with four of my men paddling for all they were worth to keep the canoe ahead of its enormous mouth ... Two days later the same hippo ambushed our cook and bit him in half. I shall not forget that grim experience - finding the body on the river path and recognising the man who but an hour before had left camp to buy eggs from a village nearby. It was a rogue. Hippos often turn rogue."

Which reminds of the time a friend of mine took his gardener along on their annual Christmas fishing pilgrimage to the Okavango Swamps. The man was a good fisherman, dead keen to get started and went out on his own while the others were still organising the camp. He was back in moments as white as a sheet. All he could say was that he had seen a monster. He didn't know what it was but it had a mouth like a concrete mixer!

Lake goes on to add that. "There's nothing sporting about shooting hippos. They're plentiful in many African rivers and are easily killed with even a small calibre bullet in the brain. They require no spooring, no belly-crawling stalking. When wounded on land they take to the water and you get an easy second shot."

For the most part, I agree with this. Certainly the hippos I have shot have been more a test of patience and careful study to ensure only was bull was shot than anything else. The recovery has been where intestinal fortitude has been required as, where there are hippos, there are invariably crocs and, like sharks, blood in the water is a very strong magnet. And I have a confession to make. Two of those hippos were shot for lion baits because, as an old skinner once told me, "The lion which once tastes hippo meat, dies on the meat." He was right. The biggest lion I ever shot could not leave the hippo meat and nor could the rest of the pride.

Since the 1950s when Lake wrote his book much has changed and so many hippos have been poached for ivory and meat that their numbers have been much reduced. Probably as a result, they are also much more wary today than they were a few decades ago. Having said that, there are still estimated to be some 125 000 to 150 000 across 29 African countries in a wide variety of habitats although an essential habitat requirement, according to The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, is sufficient water in which they can submerge totally and they do not as Mr. Lakes says, "disappear in a pool only two feet deep ... (and) ... Somehow ... flatten out."

Did you know that, according to the report of the US Fish & Wildlife Service quoted by Glen Feldake, "In 1988, one year prior to the ban on elephant ivory, the whole of Africa exported around 5 600 pounds (500 kilograms) of hippo teeth to the outside world. By 1991, two years after the ban, exports had increased by about 600 per cent to almost 30 000 pounds (13 600 kilograms) per annum and have remained relatively steady to date. Over the same period, smuggling of hippo teeth rose dramatically as well. In May of 1997, customs officials at Orly Airport in Paris confiscated 1 738 hippo teeth from smugglers. The teeth were en route from Uganda to Hong Kong. In June 2001, 10 000 pounds (4 500 kilograms) of hippo teeth were seized from the home of a trader of live animals in Uganda. An estimated 2 000 hippos were killed to gather a collection that size." In other words, approximately 6 000 hippos a year are being killed to supply the known export market. Given the fact that a lot more end up in cooking pots throughout the continent, it is clear that the current take of hippopotamuses is not sustainable.

And, did you know that the TWO biggest hippos ever shot according to Rowland Ward's Records of Big Game, one in 1909 and the other in 1933, both had longest teeth measuring 64 1/2 inches, one from Congo and the other in Kenya? And that the reason behind the popularity of hippo ivory is that it is hard and doesn't yellow like elephant ivory?

But no matter how frightened I am of them, I would never want to be without the haunting sounds of Africa's second largest mammal? And, when it comes to describing these sounds, I can do no better than quote Theodore Roosevelt in his article on a hunt in the Lado Enclave, "There were hippo in the bay and in the river. All night long we could hear them splashing, snorting, and grunting; they were very noisy, sometimes uttering a strange, long-drawn bellow, a little like the exhaust of a giant steampipe. Once or twice whinnying or neighing, but usually making a succession of grunts, or bubbling squeals through the nostrils."

Did you know, however, that hippos also make other sounds - a dozen or so clicks, croaks and whines - exclusively under water and not dissimilar to those made by the whales, dolphins and porpoises to whom they are distantly related? And that in making these sounds which can only be heard under water, they use what Glen Feldake calls, "a second simple but separate underwater acoustical system which roughly parallels that of dolphins" and that they have a specially adapted ear, not unlike that of porpoises, which allows them to hear sound simultaneously both above and below the water? No wonder he terms them "a curious and clever beast".

Certainly the more I learn about the wonderful wildlife on this African continent of ours, the more intriguing they become and the more I want to learn. Is this part and parcel of the virtuous hunting circle?


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