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  • Kev Thomas Writes

OF HIPPOS, RIVERS, AND AN UPENDED BOAT

Above: Hippo spend the daylight hours in their watery refuge, only leaving under cover of darkness to graze inland.


Statistics indicate hippopotamus are responsible for more deaths on the African continent than any other herbivore. This is easily understood if one takes into consideration, that throughout rural Africa, rivers and lakes play an important part in the daily lives of the local tribes people. However, few people can comprehend the sheer aggression and power an angry hippo is capable of generating. Because of Disney World's portrayal of celluloid hippo, many folk see them as big rotund pinkie grey balloon like creatures, spending their day bobbing around in the water, periodically snorting and grunting, while twitching their little ears.


Along many of Africa’s rural waterways daily bathing and laundering take place, drinking water is collected, firewood gathered, livestock grazed and watered. Rivers and lakes are also where African tribes-people, male and female alike, while away the hours fishing. In this shared environment, clashes between hippo and human are inevitable. Nature designed the hippo to benefit two worlds, that of the water and that of the land. Hippo are in fact invaders of the aquatic world. They don’t derive any nourishment from the aquatic food chains, but simply use the water as a daytime refuge from the sun. And from predators of their young. A hippo’s presence in the water is however decidedly beneficial, because at night hippo leave the lakes and rivers and, depending on time of year, may wander more than 14 kilometres inland to feed. The grazing they ingest is imported back into the rivers and lakes when they excrete, accelerating the replenishment of the aquatic nutrient pool. Hippo move along well-defined paths when leaving and returning to their daytime aquatic refuges, and these can be easily seen along riverbanks etc.

Above: A sure sign of a hippo's presence. Their easily identifiable spoor in the sand along the edge of a river.


They’re also capable of fighting fiercely amongst themselves. Particularly so bulls engaged in territorial disputes. Quite often too, a bull will die as a result of wounds received in such conflicts. Often, deep ulcerating wounds will drive a hippo out of the water and into the deepest and most impenetrable tangled riverine scrub, where it’ll lie and sulk. I once shot a bull in such condition on a tributary to the Mutirikwi River within Zimbabwe’s Triangle Estate. It’d been aggressively chasing irrigation staff. As I looked at the many deep lacerations on his flanks, and at a deep bite at the root of his tail, a sage old Shangaan tracker who at the time worked for me, stated hippo carrying such fearsome wounds always left the water due to fish aggravating the wounds by nibbling at them. His observations seemed valid. A hippo lying up whilst recovering from fight wounds can be exceedingly dangerous and if encountered should be treated as such. Cows with newborn calves should also be accorded the respect that they deserve.

Above: The deep festering laceration at the root of a hippo bull's tail. It was caused by fighting.

Above: Hippo leave a distinct path where they exit and re-enter the water.


My first experience of shooting hippo was as a young game ranger during early 1968.It was on the Save/Runde River confluence. At the time I was under the tutorship of John Osborne, the then senior ranger at Chipinda Pools. Poaching emanating from the east bank of the Save River was problematic. Most Shangaan males of that era worked the South African gold mines on renewable contracts. As a result, 1/4" cable found its way into the area, to be used as the preferred snare cable. Hippo moving along well-defined paths with their low hung heads, fall easy prey to the poacher's snare with it invariably tightening around the head between the eye and the ear. More often that not, in the ensuing struggle the cable snaps loose at its anchor point on a tree, and the hippo then flees to the safety of the water, with the cable deeply embedded in its flesh. It doesn’t take long for the wound to fester. And it then becomes the lot of the game ranger to relieve the animal of its misery and suffering. Usually with a well-placed shot to the brain.

At this point I must emphasize that what I write of is ‘shooting’, as applicable to wildlife management. It’s certainly not hunting, in the context of sport hunting and the spirit of fair chase. Not only is it illegal to shoot a hippo in the water, but also highly unethical. By the late seventies I was Professional Hunter and Estate Ranger for Triangle Ltd in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Part of my job was hippo control. Triangle Estate, with its river systems comprising the Runde, Tokwe and Mutirikwi, had a healthy hippo population. The company’s main agricultural crop was sugar cane, and therein lay the problem. Hippo are unfortunately extremely partial to young sugar cane and as can be imagined, a two-ton hippo with its large appetite can consume a prodigious amount of young cane. Because of this, certain hippos were categorized ‘problem animals’ and had to be shot.

Above: Because hippo soon become problem animals in crops such as young sugarcane, they often have to be shot. The photo shows the recovery of a hippo I shot in a reed covered backwater adjacent to a cane field. It'd been hiding there during the daylight hours.


My favored calibre for the task was a .375 H&H Winchester pre-64 Model 70. Rounds used were 300grain bluff nosed solids. At that point in Rhodesia’s history, ammunition was hard to come by, hand loading a rumor, and new generation bullets yet to be thought up. Quite simply we spoke in terms of 'solids' or 'soft nosed' rounds! Wherever possible, and even on dry ground in the riverine, if the animal was sleeping and I could get close enough, I endeavored to use a side brain shot, and found a bullet placed directly at the base of the ear performed best.

Both the frontal brain shot, placed in the indentation between the eyes (easily discernible on a mature bull) and a brain shot placed between the ears from behind worked well. Slight elevation relative to the shooter's position to hippo was preferred for the frontal and back of head brain shots. A hippo cleanly brain shot would normally attempt to throw its head back, with very slightly opened jaws, before slipping quietly beneath the surface. Barrel rolling, attempting to leap out of the water and scything the body around in half circles, normally indicates a badly placed shot. Once a hippo starts to barrel roll through 360 degrees with its legs flailing the air, it can be safely assumed it will die. Ingesting water while rolling soon floods the lungs causing the hippo to drown.

Above: Winching a crop-raiding hippo bull towards the Perry loader for transportation to the Triangle Estates abattoir. There was no wastage at all and hippo meat is considered a delicacy by many African tribes.


While I always endeavored to shoot crop-raiding hippo in the cane fields, where I could be sure the right culprit was being punished, this wasn’t always possible. Shooting crop-raiding hippo in the field normally took place at night with the aid of a spotlight. Under these circumstances, I would opt for a heart/lung shot unless directly above the animal on a platform stand such as I used in the young paw-paw (papaya) crops on south Runde's Mpapa section. Whenever a hippo fed within spotlight range of the static platform, this method normally worked well. The only discomfort being swarms of mosquitoes if it was a windless night.

During daylight hours, and with a single tracker only in order to cut down on the noise factor, I’d periodically follow a hippo's tracks out of a cane field and along their stifling tunnels made through the thick reed beds of the Runde River. Much of this work was done at a crouch due to the thick and matted reed canopy above us. Meeting a hippo under these circumstances and head on, normally called for quick shooting. More often than not however, we’d find the culprit sulking in a quiet pool, surrounded by an impenetrable wall of reeds. Aside from the entry/exit track down which we’d come, even the sky light was virtually blocked out. It was as if the crop raider knew he was guilty and had sought out the most remote and secluded of waterhole environments. On occasion Triangle also used to practice a strictly controlled and limited reduction of hippo. This was for the estate butchery, through which the hippo meat was sold to the large workforce as a cheap source of protein.

Above: Crop raiding hippo bulls often took refuge in the most inaccessible places, only venturing out at night. A tracker and myself followed an injured (from fighting) hippo bull into the thick stuff shown on the middle left of the photo. He'd been aggressively chasing irrigation staff at night time, while they were trying to change the pipes in cane fields.


Above: A shot just below the ear always meant instant death. This bull heard us from about 15m and just as he raised his head I was able to get in a telling shot.



Above: With a crop raiding bull at Triangle Estates, tracker Jimmy at left and Enoch at right. I'm holding my favourite calibre for hippo control, a .375 H&H. I used the calibre exclusively for the many hippo I was called upon to shoot.


Despite the many methods used for hunting hippo at Triangle, none was to prepare me for an incident with a hippo bull on the Kwando River, in the east Caprivi. This incident took place during mid-1982. Our safari camp was at Lianshulu, situated on the Kwando River which flows south out of Angola. The river forms the dividing line between east and west Caprivi. Fully ninety percent of the river's environs comprise swampland, and obviously have a very healthy hippo population. Hippo frequented the area between our main dining lodge and client chalets on an almost nightly basis in search of grazing. On one occasion however, my Bushmen trackers, skinners, chefs and other sundry hangers-on arrived as a delegation to speak to me. Their complaint was that just downstream of camp and near to the boat jetty a hippo bull was chasing their women folk each time they attempted to collect water, bath, or do their laundry.

At the time we had an elderly American client in camp. We also still had a few hippos left on quota. When I offered him the chance to shoot a hippo, I also explained how in this incident it’d be a 'cull' rather than a fair chase hunt. Happy with the idea, he said he’d do the job. Our plan of action was simplistic to say the least. Late afternoon saw us sitting at the water's edge admiring the prolific bird life, while waiting for the hippo to put in an appearance. And true to form, at about 1630 hours a hippo bull broke the surface about forty meters to our front. With gently flicking ears, he silently drifted towards us. At about 25 meters he stopped and gave a fine display of his defensive weapons before quietly submerging. After another minute or so he resurfaced, and, once more with mouth agape, displaying his enormous tusks.

My trackers were convinced this was the bull, and with the childlike excitement the San (Bushmen) are capable of, implored me to allow the client to shoot it. Despite their enthusiasm, I had misgivings, and expressed my concern at the hippo's lack of real aggression. The bull continued to saber rattle, and perhaps it was this, coupled to the trackers excitement that clouded my judgment. When he next surfaced at only about 20 meters from us, I warned the client to stand by for a side-on shot at the base of the ear, which I’d already shown him with the aid of photographs. Slowly the hippo swung around. He was ideally presented, and at my whispered command the client's .375 shot rang out. The bullet had gone true to form and with a slight backward lift of its head the hippo slid beneath the surface.

When a hippo is shot in the water, it sinks to the bottom. The time lapse until they resurface is dependent on whether they have a full or empty stomach. It’s the bloating effect of the expanding stomach gases which bring them to the surface. This may take anything from half an hour to over an hour, or more. After about forty-five minutes, I began to feel something was amiss. Granted, the hippo had been shot in a slight backwash. However, the Kwando has a tremendous underwater tow. Hardly discernible on the surface aside from the odd swirl. My worry was that perhaps the hippo had drifted downstream, beneath the surface. With this in mind and daylight rapidly fading, I leapt into our small boat, with a tracker and headed downstream. About a kilometer from the camp, we found the hippo bobbing merrily along towards Botswana.

Above: When a hippo is shot in the water it sinks to the bottom, only surfacing later due to stomach gases bloating the cadaver. In the above photo a hippo shot during a cull is being recovered by my staff. During the recovery operation an attack by another hippo is a distinct possibility.


Our attempts to pull it upstream with the boat proved hopeless because the tiller driven outboard was just too under-powered. Due to the client wanting an open-mouthed shoulder mount, I also knew we couldn’t leave it. A dead hippo’s head being non-buoyant hangs beneath the surface, and is an open invite for crocodiles to destroy the cape. Hastily, and in fading light, we tied the carcass to a reed bank and made for camp. My plan was to collect a skinning team, return to the hippo, skin the cape forward to behind the ears, sever the head from neck and take the trophy back to camp. All of this would’ve had to be done with the aid of torches and because the Kwando is devoid of sand spits, would’ve had to be performed on a platform of thick reeds pushed flat by the weight of the hippo being rolled on to them.

After returning to camp I hurriedly organized the logistics, and with three assistants made ready. The client, quite wisely opted to stay in camp. Having removed my footwear, I climbed back into the boat dressed in PT shorts and T-shirt. I also had my .375 with a fully charged magazine. And then, as we prepared to push off from the jetty an extremely irate hippo bull surfaced immediately behind the outboard. Short of actually biting the boat he made it known this was his 'turf. With my tracker holding the spotlight on his cavorting angry form, I hurriedly chambered a round, shouldered my rifle and held a sight-picture on his head. It was then, that it also struck me this was probably the bull that’d been chasing our camp staff. Because we already had one dead hippo on our hands, I was reluctant to kill him. By the same token, had he attempted to attack the boat I would’ve had no hesitation killing him. However, after about five minutes of saber rattling, he submerged, and aside from crickets and frogs all was quiet. With an assistant up front playing the spotlight across the river surface, and my other two staff seated in the middle, we moved downstream. I was sitting on the starboard side gunwale with the tiller in my left hand and my rifle in my right, muzzle skywards.

Our camp lights had disappeared from view, and I’d just started to relax when it all happened. There was a muffled shout from the bow, and in the cone of the light on the water's surface, was the sight I’d dreaded most. Coming head on and at speed from about 20 meters away, was a foaming mass of water. Despite swinging the tiller, there was little I could do. The hippo submerged slightly and then with a tremendous crash, hit the boat beneath the bow. He literally cannoned along beneath us before flipping the boat. As the boat upended, the hippo barreled onto the surface and while I was falling backwards in the moonlight my last view was of my one tracker toppling straight onto the hippo's head. It bit him once, obviously killing him instantly, and then, still clutching my rifle, I was pulled beneath the surface. The last sound I’d heard was the screaming of the outboard while still clear of the water.

Choosing to remain beneath the surface for fear of attracting attention to myself I struggled towards the bank. Currents have no mercy, and the Kwando River isn’t an exception. Within seconds it had me in its grip and carried me downstream spinning like a top. Ultimately, I had no option but to drop my rifle before managing to fight my way to the surface where the next hurdle awaited me. One of struggling through the chest deep reeds and water lilies. At this point in time, and because they actively hunt at night, crocodiles were uppermost in my mind. Eventually though, I reached dry ground, and after whistling and calling, managed to link up with my other two staff members who’d also made it safely to the bank. It was an extremely subdued and bedraggled trio that limped back to camp along the banks of the Kwando that night. And just to cap it all we also had to skirt a small cowherd of elephant, quietly feeding in the moonlight. On the following day we recovered everything that’d been lost the previous night, including the client's original hippo. Our greatest tragedy was the loss of Tjoi, an excellent San tracker, fine hunter, and friend. Our next client put paid to the notorious camp bull and on that occasion, there was no case of mistaken identity.

Above: My boat after being recovered from the bottom of the Kwando River following the hippo attack. Although the boat had a steering console I was using the tiller on the outboard to steer it.


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