The Coveted Common Hippopotamus

About a week ago I posted an article which didn’t quite surface on Associated Press outlets as I suspected it would, but never-the-less it received positive feedback from distinguished guest contributing authors to the blog, subscribers and Zoo Peeps followers on Facebook. I’m talking about the post on the  under-appreciated mega-camelid, the Bactrian camel.

Although more people are probably fans of the common hippo than Bactrian camels, they too, in my opinion are underappreciated. There are certainly exceptions at zoos around the world where resident hippos are the most popular and beloved animals in the collection. People are toured behind-the-scenes and offered a chance to watch the keepers brush their teeth. Incidentally, they too are poached for their tusks, but they are formidable targets for poachers.

In East Africa they may be feared, if anything, but unless they are displayed in contemporary exhibits, they often are over-looked and underappreciated.  In the mid 1980’s Toledo’s hippoquarium was unveiled and was soon ranked as one of the top ten zoo exhibits in the country. The exhibit was featured in National Geographic and has since received great acclaim for visual recordings of underwater births of hippo calves.

Still, more people are interested in rhinos and elephants. This is due in-part to conservation efforts and publicity surrounding the plight of these more endangered pachyderms (e.g.,more so than rhino species) and the obvious popularity of elephants. However, these semi-aquatic pachyderms are the second largest terrestrial mammals by weight, following the elephant and perhaps even more dangerous in some regards. Their ill-temperment towards humans makes them less than popular and detracts from their reputation.  They are often considered the most dangerous animals in Africa if you consider data on the reported lethal encounters with people. They certainly aren’t reluctant to chase off Nile crocodiles, lions, or hyenas. They not only attack people, but they attack people and the water craft they are riding in. Hence, hippo eco-tourism has yet to flourish, although logistical restraints can preclude wild viewing.

Hippos are still regarded as a species of concern. In  2006 the common hippopotamus was listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, with an estimated population of between 125,000 and 150,000 individuals left in the wild. Their numbers have decreased by as much as 20 % since the last census studies were reported in the mid 1990’s.

Regardless of their popularity or concern for their conservation status, they have most interesting life histories and I consider them quite the charismatic mega-vertebrates. In the zoo, it’s much more interesting to view them underwater where they spend much of the day. They conserve energy by doing almost nothing unless they leave the water to feed. So at most  zoos where hippos are displayed viewing is limited to watching a submerged individual in dung contaminated pools.  This doesn’t compromise  their health as the pools are regularly drained and refilled, but it may compromise their popularity as exhibit animals.   I would agree that there’s not always much to see with hippos. With that said, Obaysch, a celebrity hippo at the London Zoo who debuted in the late 1800’s drew 10,000 visitors a day.  But again, he was a novel exhibit animal at the time.

Hippos live to be half a century in age, outliving their wild counterparts by just a few years. Today, many hippos in zoos  are of a generation where they are nearing the end of their lifespan.  To zoo staff they become legendary and hopefully there will be a time when more of these animals are replaced in zoos as more institutions can afford to build contemporary exhibits that do justice to these magnificent animals. Both San Diego and Toledo have phenomenal exhibits, and other zoos display pygmy hippos very well. Louisville Zoo, for example, has a fantastic pygmy hippo exhibit.  The captive gene pool is healthy enough that recruitment of wild individuals is unnecessary. However, as I  mentioned, it’s very expensive to build a contemporary hippo exhibit because water filtration that can handle hippo excrement is quite costly, not to mention the volume of water needed to house hippos. They can be exhibited with fish as they are not piscivorous, but rather herbivorous. Some fish species are particularly adapted to feed on the dead skin and other debris found on hippos. In the wild the hippos literally walking into cleaning stations where different species of freshwater fish tend to different regions that need cleaning.

They recently gained international attention when the late  Pablo Escobar’s herd of hippos was discovered to be living free in Columbia after escaping the confines of their enclosures on his compound’s ranch. They apparently adapted quite well to foraging on the native flora in the region. Unfortunately, they were deemed a great danger to civilians and most, if not all of the animals in the herd were killed.  At least we know that they were coveted collection animals by someone (i.e., drug baron). I can’t think of many people today with resources available to manage private collections who seek out it hippos. I certainly don’t condone private ownership of hippos, but it’s interesting to know that they were of interest to someone.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

*Note: With the exception of one of my own illustrations posted below, all photos that accompany previous blog posts from myself and Dr. Laurel Neme are from random browser image searches for generic photos.  As soon as I can track down the original sources, I will credit the photographer and welcome any information that the readership is privy to.  Contributing author Diana L. Guerrero provides her own photos from her stock footage. If you have any questions about photo credits please email me at   Thank you.  If you have a photo that you would like to share we welcome those as well.

A Tusker Trampled My House

In exploring some issues relevant to the illegal trade in ivory I encountered report after report of tragic confrontations among villagers and elephants on the Indian Subcontinent– reports that rarely get much, if any coverage in the Western world, but are commonplace in local newspapers.

I admit that as little or as much as I know about  basic elephant behavior and biology, my exposure to elephants is quite limited to what I have learned in zoos. With that said, my acumen for husbandry, training and broader in situ conservation issues is based primarily on what I know of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants.  My knowledge of Asian elephants is second- hand and based on anecdotal information from handlers who worked with elephants for years in circuses and from colleagues who have worked with both Asian and African elephants in both protected and “free contact” situations……..  In fact, the most recent time I pondered the notion of working with elephants in captivity or in the  wild was when Harry Peachey, Elephant Manager, Curator, Board member (IEF), and world -renowned elephant expert lightheartedly proposed that we work on a joint project in Borneo. Harry surmised that Borneo was an ideal destination for our “project” because the  sun bears would cover my interests and pygmy elephants are of great interest to him.   It’s not that elephants would be a disappointment to work with, not in the least, but like chimps, I consider elephants to be far smarter than myself and I’m not sure who would be training who.  Anyway, the Borneo pygmy elephant is a subspecies of Asian elephant known for it’s size and passive demeanor and is under heavy extinction pressure.    But I digress, again…..

While the black market ivory trade flourishes and poached animals are tragically killed at alarming rates in Africa, the human-wild Asian elephant interface in India highlights the increasing difficulty to live with elephants who navigate the forest corridors that lead them through intact habitat, circumventing the need to travel through more densely populated human inhabited areas.  However, agricultural development outside preserves continue to place pressure on buffer zones. Roads and railway tracks fragment the habitat of the corridors crucial to elephant movements.

You can’t blame the elephant and you can’t blame local villagers. These people are just trying to make a living. But it’s just another reminder of how easy it is for people who have never encountered a herd of 50 or more agitated tuskers, as Asian bulls are often referred to, and cows trample your home and chase and sometimes injure or kill your family members.  This is not to say that in many situations the animals weren’t provoked, but this is not uncommon if you live closely to wild elephants.   I think that the media coverage of tame, domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia create an image of Asian elephants that we may prefer to believe.

Elephant issues in Africa and Asia are far more complicated than what I describe so briefly in this post, but it’s a poignant reminder that there are two sides to every story.  Although the black market promotes poaching for ivory even within protected preserves and often by the very game wardens and wildlife officials who are paid to protect theses animals, there are also people trying to make an honest living in elephant country.  Clearly the use of land by animal and man often creates tragic consequences for both elephants and people.

To learn more about what zoos are doing for captive elephant welfare and conservation visit the National Elephant Center. You can also read the recent Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s (AZA) Press Release on elephant conservation and this European Association of  Zoo & Aquarium’s (EAZA) Newsletter on Elephants. This latter issue dedicated to elephants is quite informative.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus