December 05, 2005

Hippo Life

The life of the hippo is a mysterious existence of roaming in the forest, gutteral moans and calls, and fierce battles with their own. They are truly bizarre and wonderful.

There are two undying memories I have of the African Hippopotamus. The first is a pod of hippos relaxing in the water at Ngorongoro Crater with egrets and heron gently resting on their backs while the blue sky above reflected across the water. Positively serene. In the cool of the morning a couple of hippos walked across from one pool to another, grazing on the grass as they went. My second memory is from a water pool in the Serengeti, cut off from the nearest river during the dry season and fast filling up with hippo dung. Very stinky water. The slightly overcrowded family erupted into tension about every 15 minutes, either a result of barging and jostling for prime sleeping positions in the middle of the pack, or due to a protective mother demonstrating due caution from an approaching male.

Two hippos going head to head is a spectacular sight. It starts out with a lot of grunting and guffawing and should neither party back down then the real show gets underway. Teeth are bared for display and then pressed into action. Hippos have a series of very long tusk like teeth on the lower jaw, the outermost are very long and kept sharp with constant grinding against the upper jaw. They are sharper than any spear and backed up with powerful jaws that can cut a man in half with a single bite. At various stages of the conflict either hippo may attempt to claim the territory, a display which involves frantic flapping of their tail combined wth copious amounts of fluid fecal matter. The shit really flies.

Male hippos will often attack the young calves to assert their dominance. Only a strong and healthy mother can protect her baby. One side effect of this intra-species competition is that weaker mothers rarely have a chance to contribute their genes to the family group. Such an aggressive level of behaviour between their own has also made them a formidable opponent to other species. The big cats of east Africa would never dare to tackle a fully grown hippo, and even a crocodile must use stealth and cunning if it has any chance of grabbing a baby. The hippos spend their days wallowing in the water without fear of predation, save only the attentive mother who must defend her baby.

Families of hippos with 20 to 40 members congregate in pods where ever the shallow water of a river or pool is available. They make an impressive sight, dotting the waterways every few hundred metres and bobbing up and down in the water as they rise to the surface for air. On the Zambezi river near Victoria Falls the nightly parade of river boats take great care to observe but steer clear of the small hippo families. It's a big river, very big, and contrasts with the more familiar habitat of ephemeral mud pools - such is the adaptability of the hippo. Further along the same water course, in Botswana's Chobe National Park, the hippos endure a unique threat. In the Chobe the lions are organised into extraordinary large prides and they hunt together to stunning effect. Exceeding 20 or 30 lions they attack water buffalo, elephant and even the hippo. It is a scene repeated nowhere else on the continent.

In the dying light of dusk the hippos begin their nocturnal activities. The dominant male is first to leave the pool, leaving a marker of his dung at the exit site for others to follow. A few early risers will venture out not far behind him, but most will wait for total darkness. Once on land they all go their separate ways to graze and browse. They will revisit regular paths night after night, running trails through the forest and across the plains. The sausage tree is a particular favourite for hippos, it's large fleshy fruit that falls to the ground and provides a nutritious food source vital to their survival in the dry season.

On one stormy night in the Luangwa national park we watched the lightning for a few hours as we sat overlooking a wide and semi-dry river bed. In the moments when the sky lit up the surrounds we could see the hippos wandering about like giant grey jelly beans. Elephants mingled with them for a while before crossing the water to head into the forest. A few hippos came all the way up to our campsite that night, looking for the greener grass near the water tower. When caught in the torch light they become shy and retreat quickly to other pastures. A curiously shy response for such an impressive and powerful creature.

Sad to see her leave, we were equally glad she didn't take umbrage to our intrusion.

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