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The Hungry Hippo

It is not until you see one of these magnificent animals with your own eyes that you can truly get a grasp on the sheer size of them. With eyes and nostrils sticking out of the water, these docile looking creatures emerge onto land like military vehicles. Reaching speeds of up to 30mile/h and with teeth the size of a man’s torso, you would not want to get in the path of these creatures as they feed on grass under the nights sky. The Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibus) is a true natural wonder.

The African Hippo can be found in waterways across East Africa and most countries south of the Sahara. To avoid the suns heat they spend much of their day submerged in waterholes or rolling around in mud baths. At night they hurl themselves out of the water to feed on grass throughout the night. These huge creatures life a solely vegetarian lifestyle. They can reach weights of up to 3.5 tonnes and can grow to become 13ft long and around 5ft tall, true giants. True giants, these animals have very few natural predators and so can live up to 50 years.

African people have many stories of the hippo in their ancient stories, and one great one offers a reason for the hippo’s curious toilet routine. The story goes “God made the hippopotamus and told it to cut the grass for the other animals. But when the hippo came to Africa and felt how hot it was, he asked god for permission to stay in the water during the day and cut the grass only at night. God hesitated to give this permission, for the hippo was apt to eat fish rather than cut grass. But the hippo promised not to eat fish and was thus allowed to remain in the water. Now when the hippo leaves a pile of dung, it scatters the pile with it tail, thereby showing god that there are no fish scales in it”.

Despite its vegetarian diet, the hippo has an enormous set of teeth. They use these teeth to engage in viscous battles for territory. As waters wilt away in the dry seasons, space becomes a premium and many battles are fought out. Males use their massive teeth for fighting when trying to lay claim to a group of females, in this case size does matter. Unfortunetly, these huge teeth and high levels of territorial behaviour means that hippos often come in conflict with humans. As human development spreads over suitable habitat, these two species often come in contact and more often than not the hippo wins, leading to up to 2,500 human deaths a year. In fact hippos are responsible for the most animal deaths in the whole of Africa (discounting diseases carried by insects).

However, hippos are by no means always the victor. Hippo populations across Africa are shrinking and the species is under threat. Unregulated and illegal hunting and trade – along with habitat loss, climate change and run-ins with humans – are considered the greatest threats to hippos, which are now listed as “vulnerable to extinction”. Hundreds of hippos are shot each year to minimize human-wildlife conflict, despite the fact that ditches or low fences easily deter hippos.

Unfortunetly, it seems like a greater threat is emerging for the hippo. Legal and illegal trade in hippo teeth ivory is causing many animals to be shot in cold blood. Hippo teeth, once worked on, are potentially indistinguishable from elephant tusks by a consumer. With the world beginning to wake up and put effort into elephant conservation, there is a real risk that poaching and trafficking could shift to ivory from hippos.

Furthermore, this worry is not helped by the fact that some countries are allowing legal sales of this product. In Tanzania there was recently an auction for four tons of hippo ivory. Hippos’ teeth can grow as long as three feet and are almost identical in looks to elephant tusk. The auction occurred in January, where $13,6000 was spent on these animal products. The money raised from the auction is said to go toward conservation efforts, but due to high levels of corruption along the line, it is doubtful this money will reach its intended destination.

Legal sales of wildlife products like this are extremely controversial. For example the one-off sales of elephant ivory in several countries that occurred after the international trade ban was in place lead to a stimulation of demand for ivory and provided cover for illegal ivory to be laundered into the legal market. If we allow the legal sale of these products, then consumers easily get the wrong idea thinking that it is environmentally sustainable to harvest ivory from any animal. An investigation should be put into place to survey the number of hippo teeth products that are circulating in Hong Kong either being sold as hippo ivory or even miss-sold as elephant ivory.

In order to protect this species from the threat of extinction, help needs to come from large conservation groups. To soften the impact of human-wildlife conflicts the African Wildlife Foundation is helping communities construct enclosures, fences, and ditches to protect agriculture and farmland from grazing hippos, thereby minimizing the conflicts. Funding is also been used to improve protection in national park areas, and making sure as much suitable habitat is kept as possible.

The threat that these hippos is facing is a grave one. We should consider this as an example, many people have no idea that this iconic species is in trouble. Much like the giraffe, which is now in danger, we are letting these iconic species suffer without any attention. While it is great to see the conservation of animals such as the pangolin and marine turtle being so widely celebrated, we should be striving to protect all of nature, not selected species. To lose a species once so common and as majestic as the hippo will be an environmental catastrophe, we cannot let that happen

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