Dear Straight Dope:
I've heard more than a few times at zoos and on nature programs that the hippopotamus is responsible for more deaths in the wild than lions, tigers or crocodiles. But no one ever mentions what they do to kill so many people. Lions and tigers attacking people make sense, being meat eaters, but what do hippos do? Could you expose the hidden side of this otherwise goofy looking animal?
We hear "fat and bald," we think "affable, jolly and placid." But notwithstanding Hyacinth, the hippo in Fantasia, Hippopotamus amphibius is as mean as a viper and a filthy pig besides. The name hippopotamus literally means "river horse" from the Greek (hippos=horse and potamus=river)–quite the euphemism compared to the more accurate Latin Gandulid lagoonus vicioso, or "vicious pond slob" (okay, I made that up).
The hippo, found today throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is considered by many experts, explorers and Africans to be the most dangerous animal in Africa (not counting the mosquito). Crocodiles and cape buffaloes are badasses, too, but nobody seems to have kept an actual body count for any of these species and they don’t have belts to notch. They’ve all killed way more people than Africa’s lions have. (A few rogue tigers have killed a lot of people too, but they live in India, not Africa.) The hippo is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and unafraid of humans, upsetting boats sometimes without provocation and chomping the occupants with its huge canine teeth and sharp incisors. Most human deaths occur when the victim gets between the hippo and deep water or between a mother and her calf. I’ve read descriptions of their ground-rumbling charges–bellowing loudly, swinging their heads like giant sledgehammers, the massive open mouth with slashing teeth and I’m thinking, "This little safari is taking a bit of a bad turn, Elliot."
From "The Dangerous Hippo," Science Digest, LXXVI (November, 1974), 80-86, by George W. Frame and Lory Herbison Frame:
Nearly all of the famous African explorers and hunters–Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Selous, Speke, DuChaillu–had boating mishaps with hippos. All considered the hippo to be a wantonly malicious beast. Not long ago Spencer Tyron, a white hunter, was killed while hunting near the shores of Lake Rukwa, Tanzania. A bull hippo turned over the dugout canoe from which Tyron was shooting, and bit off his head and shoulders.
And check out this article from a couple of months ago in "Africa News" (www.namibian.com.na/2000/October/africa/00AC8AC795.html) about "rampaging hippos spreading terror." They were attacking boatmen, beating up cows and ripping up rice fields. The herds of "marauding herbivores" had been chased out of Mali already and spilled into Niger, behaving worse than drunken soccer fans.
Hippos weigh up to 8000 pounds and can gallop at 18 m.p.h.–a lot faster than you, I bet. They’re more agile than they look and can climb steep banks, but, like elephants, they can’t jump. Hippos sleep or lounge around on river banks and in the water most of the day and graze on the grasslands at night. Their skin secretes a sticky pinkish oil that helps protect them from the sun and maybe from infection, too. Most of ’em have lots of wounds and scars (the males commonly beat the living crap out of each other, too), and seeing as they’re sitting in a shithole all day–see below–you wonder why infection isn’t more of problem for them.
Hippos defecate copious amounts into the rivers and ponds in which they wallow all day and also partake of a charming ritual described by hippo experts as "dung showering." They blow crap mixed with urine all over the place to humiliate their hippo rivals and inferiors and mark the territory around their watering hole, swishing their little tails to be sure to get plenty of coverage at nose level. Cecil described this hippo habit in his diatribe against spraying cats in www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_011.html: "The hippopotamus, for instance, is said to mark jungle trails by excreting a lethal mixture of urine and feces while twirling its tail like a propeller. This may explain the historically sluggish market for pet hippopotamuses."
Lovely, eh? Once I asked Tom Silva, the mammal curator at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, why we don’t have hippos here and he suggested that routine cleaning of my tropical fish aquariums pales compared to the chore of cleaning a hippo tank, to put it mildly. The Singapore zoo has them, though, with a viewing window on the underwater part of the tank. Hyacinth in her tutu admittedly does come to mind as you watch this big tub-o-lard delicately prance along the bottom like a moon walker. She really is amazingly graceful until she lifts that little tail and lets it blow.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
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