Lessons for a Hippopotamus Child
By Sarah Todd
Last month, friends invited us to spend a few days on a houseboat on Lake Kariba. Our captain took us across the tranquil waters of the world’s largest man-made lake (by volume) to Palm Bay. In addition to a few elephants, a number of crocodiles and many impala we found ourselves parked near a pod of hippo. To our delight we saw a few heads poking out of the water with small spaces between their ears… there were babies in this hippo pod!
After a spectacular Kariba sunrise the following morning we settled down to enjoy our first coffee of the day. A lone hippo emerged from the water to feed on the bank in front of the houseboat, followed by her baby. A collective “aaah” ensued from the coffee afficianados: baby hippos are very cute. I actually find the adults rather endearing; they may be one of the most dangerous animals in the world but there’s just something appealing about their comical faces and “pleasing” shapes. As her mum began grazing her offspring stayed close. I grabbed my camera and began photographing the pair.
I have to admit I only noticed what happened next after I uploaded my photographs to my computer. I want to believe the mother had no idea her baby was behind her, because why would any mother do this to her child?
Hippo babies are born with sterile intestines, and consume their mother’s faeces to obtain the bacteria needed for digestion. Perhaps this mother was feeding her child, although this baby is certainly not a new-born! Hippos defecate to mark their territory, spinning their stubby little tails to spread the faeces over a wide area. Regardless of the reason for which this was done, my sympathy is with the baby hippo!
What the mother did next was clearly visible through my camera lens. She turned around to face her baby – I was amazed at how quickly she moved, but then hippos can reach speeds of up to 30 km/hour on land. The little hippo immediately dropped down onto its stomach as the mother opened her massive jaws and placed them over the baby’s body.
She then seemed nudge her baby back to the water, still with her jaws over the baby. The incisors of an adult hippo can reach a length of 40 cm, while the canine are even longer at 50 cm. Their teeth also sharpen as they grind together. The bite force of an adult female hippo has been measures at over 800 kg; a formidable animal indeed!
The baby carefully moved back into the water, its mother gently guiding it the whole time.
Once her little was safely in the water and out of harm’s way she turned back and spend another ten minutes calmly grazing before returning to the water and her baby.
Hippos use their canines and incisors for fighting; the molars grind up the grass they pull from their soil with their thick lips. We were very fortunate during this trip to be able to see a number of hippos grazing on the bank at all times during the day. They spent the rest of the time with their pods in the water around the houseboat, moving around in the water and twitching their tiny ears as they grunted and wheezed – almost like a crowd of people laughing at a party!
Writing this a few weeks after our visit to Kariba I’m still amazed at the gentleness of one of the world’s most aggressive animals. Those same jaws that carefully guided her baby back to the water can bite animals such as crocodiles in half. They have been known to attack boats and canoes – my husband has had a hippo bite right through his bass fishing boat on two different occasions. Some years ago a safari guide lost his arm after a hippo attacked the boat he was using to take clients on the Zambezi River.
Hippos certainly have my respect!