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Photos: Hippos threatened in Africa

Photos: ‘River horses’ threatened in Africa

Photos: ‘River horses’ threatened in Africa
Julie Larsen Maher, special to
January 7, 2008

A hippo photo safari by Julie Larsen Maher of the Wildlife Conservation Society

As the sun sets on the Luangwa River in Zambia, a male hippo throws its mouth open in a yawn as wide as a canyon. Night is falling as the hippo herds break to the banks to follow their regular paths to their feeding grounds. Their huge, round hooves made muddy imprints during the rainy season, and have dried to concrete craters along a trail the hippos follow to graze in grassy glades.

Ex-poacher retrained as a game scout for ecotourists.

All photos by Julie Larsen Maher, ©WCS.

Hippopotamuses, derived from the Greek words “river horse”, are semi-aquatic herbivores that live their lives in water, except for evening feeding rituals. Zambia, in East Africa, is one of their few remaining strongholds. More hippos live in Zambia than any other country, with over half of the estimated 40,000 living in the fresh waters of the Luangwa Valley.

Hippos are low-slung with big bellies giving them the appearance of being awkward on land, but they are fast runners and can cover great distances when defending their territory or searching for food.

Male hippos take over a length of riverbank to establish mating territories. Sometimes these squatting rights result in fierce fights where the males bellow loudly and bare their huge canine teeth.

Despite their reputation for bad tempers, hippos are threatened themselves. Illegal and unregulated hunting for hippo meat and teeth (which are a source of ivory for export) have landed one of the world’s largest land mammals on the 2007 IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species with “Vulnerable” status.

Hippos rely on fresh water habitats, which puts them at odds with humans who have growing needs for the same. Above the Luangwa Valley on the plateau watersheds, more and more land is being cleared for people to plant crops like cotton and tobacco, which results in runoff downriver that is silting up the Luangwa River and shrinking waterholes for Africa’s largest remaining hippo population. Competition for water and food, and crop raiding by wild animals, including hippos, threatens food security for many households.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Dale Lewis, the country director for Zambia, has established COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation) in response to these challenges. WCS has targeted conservation of hippos and other wildlife in Zambia through this program, where one-time poachers, who were diminishing animal populations including hippos and elephants, receive training in organic farming, carpentry, bee-keeping, and ecotourism. The implementation of COMACO methods by local people reduces conflicts with wildlife, thus building a more hopeful future for Africa’s wild animals.

Meanwhile, just north of Zambia in southern Tanzania, hippos are facing similar problems in sourcing fresh water. The Great Ruaha, once a vast and permanent river that drains ultimately into the Indian Ocean, has been slowly drying up inside Ruaha National Park. This has been due to large-scale rice irrigation schemes taking water up-stream, but not replacing it. The situation has become so bad that the river now stops completely for two months a year and the hippos are seriously threatened.

“We are working with national parks and rice cooperatives to try and reduce illegal water withdrawal,” says WCS Tanzania Country Director, Tim Davenport. “Meanwhile, we are closely monitoring the 900 or so hippos to try and ensure that they survive until the Great Ruaha flows all year round once more.”

There are just over 100 hippos at 41 North American institutions in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

  • WCS in Zambia
  • WCS in Tanzania
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