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17 May, 2021
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water beasts

The Water Beasts- Article by Gareth Jones

The Water Beasts – Hippos

Early one morning many years ago, we drove along a fairly remote stretch of track along the Tsavo River. We rounded a tight bend in thick bush and drove into an area with thick lush green grass. Suddenly a huge grey bulky creature moved across the lush green grass with surprising speed, rapidly crossing the road just ahead of our vehicle, and then plunging down the steep river bank and into the muddy depths of a large pool of water. Wow! what a sight to see a large hippo bull running at full speed in daylight. Thankfully we were in the relative safety of our vehicle. Grateful that this encounter had not been while walking, as these ‘water beasts’ have a rather nasty reputation throughout Africa for killing many people annually.

Early one morning as I drove through the Langata forest in the Nairobi National Park, on a chilly dull overcast day, suddenly a huge shape appeared in an open area on my left, it was a hippo lying down resting, no doubt after a night of feasting. The hippo lay still for a few minutes but then stood up as another vehicle passed next to me, looking at me with an almost smiley bemused expression, the huge hulk of a hippo slowly turned and retreated into the thicker bush. Wow! what a great and unusual sighting to see such a “surprise guest” in the forest. I thought for a moment on how ironic it was that the hippo appeared to be “smiling” as a “water beast”, while in fact, hippos are very dangerous animals.

It was Sunday the 30th August 2015, as we sat peacefully watching various bird and animal species come and drink at a small dam amongst some sand mounds. An old hippo lay there almost asleep in the shallow pool, no doubt lulled by the warmth of the mid-morning sun. Suddenly the peaceful scene was shattered by the appearance of a large safari vehicle. The driver of this vehicle almost immediately started revving the vehicle engine ….in a continued noisy series of …high rev ..low rev… high rev… while driving in a 360-degree circle around the dam. Sitting next to the driver was a tourist who was taking action photos because the continued revving sequence disturbed and angered the hippo, enough to make it thrash about in the water and do a few warning charges at the revving safari vehicle.

Clearly, the old Hippo was not amused that he had been rudely interrupted, and we were also very unimpressed at this illegal behaviour. The driver arrogantly broke the following KWS rules with the selfish intent of merely trying to get an action moment for the tourist to take a photo of the hippo. 1) Respect the privacy of the wildlife, this is their habitat. 2) Don’t crowd the animals or make sudden noises or movements. 3) Keep quiet, noise disturbs the wildlife and may antagonize your fellow visitors. 4) Never drive off-road, this severely damages the habitat.

When informing the driver of his wrongful actions, the well-dressed driver informed me that “I know there are rules, but you should all be happy that I helped you all get good photos”. Such an attitude is not what should come from a reputable hotel, as the Safari vehicle yellow Toyota Landcruiser was from the Weston Hotel. Safari drivers/guides should not be people that are abusive, but instead, they should be the very people that are ambassadors for Kenya by setting an example of how to behave properly at all times. It should be noted that the matter resolved when the Weston Hotel management was informed and the driver was counselled and disciplined.

Friday, 18th June 2010 was an interesting day in the Nairobi National Park …….first an email from Rob Allen to say that 3 lions had been eating on a buffalo carcass for the last 3 days at the water’s edge of the Eland Valley dam……. then in the late afternoon a phone call from Dave Mc Kelvie to say that he was at the dam watching the lions… I then left the office and headed towards the East gate. When I arrived at the dam, the lions were sitting quietly on top of a mound, and the hippos were deep in the water, with the buffalo carcass visible on the opposite bank of the dam…I sat and watched them for some time…. eventually the Hippos began to move towards the buffalo carcass, and came out of the water and over the carcass. From a distance, it was difficult to see exactly what they were doing, but they appeared to be licking/muzzling the carcass on quite a few occasions. I then moved closer to the buffalo carcass by taking the backtrack past the dam wall, as I stopped the hippo retreated into the water….. so I sat quietly and waited…. after some time the lions began to move towards the Buffalo carcass (a lioness with 2 sub-adult cubs ), they each ate briefly on the carcass, and I could see they were all very full from the feasting. Then the hippos began to advance while the lions were at the buffalo carcass, they boldly came out of the water, and the lions immediately timidly retreated. The Hippos then repeated the cycle of licking & muzzling the buffalo carcass. My understanding is that they were getting salts & minerals from licking the carcass.

It was again difficult to see from where I was parked, because the carcass was on the water’s edge and partly hidden by the bank and the long grass plus it was getting dark, but the hippos spent some time over the buffalo, and through my binoculars, there were times when I observed the hippo’s tongues left sticking out. A truly fascinating event to witness… however this did get me thinking….. firstly how did the buffalo (it appeared to be a cow) die on the edge of the dam?… Was it alone at the time?… Was it weakened so that a single lioness with 2 half-grown cubs could kill it?… or did it die of another cause at the water’s edge?…. it’s hard to tell….. then also the actions of the Hippos were really amazing… were they trying the get mineral nutrients like body salts etc from the buffalo carcass? Hippos are not known to eat meat. What is also particularly amazing is that location of this natural event in the Nairobi National Park. The Eland Valley Dam is less than 1km from the park boundary, and approx 1.5km from the East Gate.

Most recently in the Maasai Mara, we watched many thousands of wildebeest (I renamed them mingi-beest), all gathering to cross the mara river as they do annually. My observation was that they seemed to prefer crossing in parts of the river where hippos were present. Perhaps this was for at least 2 reasons, firstly there are fewer crocodiles with hippos around and secondly, the hippos carve access channel paths into the steep banks to allow movement out of the river for nightly grazing of grass, so the wildebeest then use these paths to allow them easier movement up the steep banks of the river.

Throughout Kenya, there are a good number of National Parks and wildlife reserves that protect hippos in their natural environment, for example, places like Nairobi National Park, Tsavo National Park, Meru National Park, Amboseli National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park, Maasai Mara Reserve and many lakes and rivers. If people sometimes sit quietly at a dam where hippos are present, they often start to perform as they cavort in the water, sometimes small babies can also be seen. Even though hippos can look somewhat comical at times with green material on their heads, and we sing amusing songs like “Mud mud glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood”, in reality, Hippos have a nasty reputation in Africa for being the mammal that on average kills the most people every year, this is mostly because of their aggressive nature when they are out of the water feeding, while people are collecting water in the early morning or late afternoons. The situation has become particularly tense in some parts of Africa as human populations increase and water recourses decrease.

Some interesting facts about hippos include …
1. Hippos can’t swim or float! They walk or stand on surfaces below the water like sandbanks. Even so, they spend most of the day in water to protect their sensitive skin from the sun.
2. They secrete an oily red substance that acts as a moisturiser, sunblock and protects them from germs. This also makes them look like they are sweating blood.
3. Although hippos can hold their breath for approximately seven minutes, most adult hippos resurface every three to five minutes to breathe. This is an automatic process – even a sleeping hippo, surfaces to breathe without waking.
4. Hippos can close their nostrils and ears to prevent water from entering. This is why hippo calves can suckle on land or underwater.
5. An open mouth is not a yawn but rather a sign to warn you off. You will only see hippo ‘yawning’ while in the water because they are only territorial while in the water. You will also hear them ‘honking’ and ‘grunting’ which is how they mark their territory.
6. A hippo can live for up to 40 years.
7. Hippos usually come out of the water for four to five hours at night to graze and can cover up to 10km in this time. Their diet consists of grass and they graze using muscular lips.
8. The hippo is considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa and it is highly aggressive, particularly if you get between it and the water. Their canine teeth (sharp teeth) are used for fighting.
9. The hippo’s closest living relatives are whales and porpoises!
10. The hippopotamus is the third-largest land mammal after the elephant and white rhino.
11. Hippos have barrel-shaped torsos, wide-opening mouths with large canine tusks, nearly hairless bodies, columnar legs and large size adults average 1,500 kg for males and 1,300 kg for females. Despite its stocky shape and short legs, it is capable of running over 30 km/h over short distances, and can therefore easily outrun a human.

A visit to a Hippo pool in any park is a worthwhile and rewarding experience. There is much to see there including birds, monkeys and other species, but please do not venture alone, hippos are dangerous creatures, sometimes armed rangers will escort you, but if alone take extra care and avoid early mornings and late afternoons when walking near water in thick bush i.e. in hippo’s territory. Yes, indeed the hippo is another amazing God-given creation, that we sometimes call the “water beast”. Next time you visit a wild place with hippos nearby, take a little time to observe their interesting habits.

water beasts
Gareth Jones – Nairobi Park Diary – A passionate writer & photographer
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