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The sight of a hippo in a swimming pool grabbed the attention of the whole nation late this year. Solly, seeking the perfect hide-away from a dominant bull, had wandered into Monate Conservation Lodge near Modimolle. Desperately needing cooling water, the young hippo made himself at home in the lodge’s swimming pool where he became trapped. Sadly, Solly died before he could be rescued.

Hippopotamuses live in a competitive social structure and Solly’s flee from his pod was hardly extraordinary. Typically hippos are territorial in water, where a bull and his harem of up to 10 cows live. Bachelor bulls are allowed to share the water, but only as long as they behave submissively, wallowing together, away from the females. Solly probably became too amorous for the liking of the reigning bull and, not able to prove his physical dominance, was forced to find greener pastures.

Although aggressive, hippos rarely kill each other; they’ll stop fighting when the one is clearly stronger than the other. However, when the area becomes overpopulated or when a habitat starts to shrink, bulls will sometimes attempt to kill infants.

Thanks to their fierce nature, hippos have earned quite a reputation. They are responsible for killing more humans than any other mammal in Africa. Their tusk-like canines (that grow continuously), massive weight and surprising agility on land (speeds up to 50 km/h) make an encounter with one such as Solly a real danger.

Yet hippos have reason to fear us too. Their ivory is 10 times more valuable than an elephant’s because it does not turn yellow with age, which makes them extremely vulnerable to poaching. In the mid-1970s, the population in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, dropped from 29 000 to just 800 after poachers pillaged the park. Such a decline in numbers is devastating, particularly due to hippos’ long eight-month gestation period.

But hippos are not only known as a fearsome source of ivory. The subject of fable and folklore, they are well known for the peculiar, almost endearing, way in which they spin their tails while defecating to mark their territory (they urinate backwards, probably for the same reason). The famous Bushmen parable is that the Creator didn’t want hippos to live in the water, thinking an animal as big as a hippo would eat all the fish in the rivers and dams. But, after the hippo pleaded, promising to eat grass rather than fish, the Creator gave in. But He made the hippo promise that he would spin his tail so that He can see there are no fish bones in his dung.

How ironic, that one of Africa’s most feared killers is in fact a herbivore.


When hippo was hairy and other tales from Africa, by Nick Greaves and Rod Clement (Struik, 2000).
Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa, by Chris and Tilde Stuart (Struik, 1988).

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