Hippos are big in the park. There are lots of them. Even when an epidemic of anthrax culled scores of them five years ago, they bounced back. It only takes a few years for their numbers to return to previous levels. Of course, no one mentioned “anthrax” apart from as a whispered aside. We don’t want to scare away the tourists. Anthrax to most people in Britain conjures up memories of a remote Scottish island used as a testing ground for biological warfare in World War 2.
During the heat of the day, they flop down in the river or a muddy pool to cool off. They forage at night, eating huge amounts of vegetation. They like to sunbathe on sandbanks in the morning and evening, huddled in a pack. Their skin secretes a pinkish substance which one guide referred to as sunscreen. And although their skin is tough and leathery, it can burn. Under the skin is a thick layer of blubber, which assists with flotation and stores energy.
Each pod has a stretch of river or a part of a lagoon which they call home. They defend it aggressively against intruders. Steve Tolan from Chipembele did a long boat trip on the Luangwa River recently and recorded 300 serious hippo assaults on their metal craft. They were more dangerous than the huge crocodiles in the river.
Anyone who has seen hippos in Africa will remember their deep grunting call. It really sounds impressive, basso molto profundo. I mistakenly thought that the low frequency noises passed better underwater, facilitating communication. Of course, they are grunting on TOP of the water. Perhaps it just lets the neighbouring pods know they are still around. It seems that they also employ clicks and more sophisticated noises underwater, much like dolphins.
As the baby male hippos grow into adolescence they start play fighting. The jaws open over 90 degrees to display their massive teeth. These are hard, like ivory and slide against each other to slice up grass and veg. They can inflict serious wounds on people as well as other hippos. As they mature, the males are “encouraged” to leave the pod, to start a new life or to challenge an ageing bull hippo for his harem.
Hippos are not a usual target for poachers, but I am told that their meat is particularly tender. Their muscles may not be as toned as those of an impala, but they are very strong. Just getting out of the river to go and feed at night often involves climbing up a 45 degree muddy slope. And they can outrun a man on land, if only for short distances.
Last Sunday, on a game drive in the Nsefu Sector of the Park, we stopped by the river for a sundowner. One massive hippo on the bank started to defaecate. The hippo’s tail whirled around, splattering the green/brown slurry coming out of its anus over a wide area, marking its territory.
One of the guests in the safari vehicle, a loud American man with something to say about everything we saw, said, “That’s how I go to the bathroom!”
I replied, “What do you use to spread the shit around?”
His long-suffering wife said, “Touché.”