May be shot even in Colombian mini-refuge
CAPE TOWN, LUSAKA, MEDALIN–– Hippopotamuses, under the gun now in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, decried as a menace by fishing villages in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi, and perhaps soon to be shot in Colombia, might be described as casualties of global warming.
Evolved due to global warming
Ironically, hippos exist because of a much earlier global warming cycle, which circa 35 million years ago dried out the inland sea that once sprawled across east Africa from southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, south through modern Kenya and Tanzania.
Ancestrally related to cetacean whales, hippos represent the branch of the family who turned inland, to foraging vegetation in freshwater lakes and rivers, while most of their relatives paddled ever farther out to sea and took up filter-feeding on krill and plankton.
“The ancestors of hippos,” Science News summarized in 2015, “were among the first large mammals to colonize the African continent, long before any of the large carnivores, giraffes or bovines,” or elephants and rhinos, for that matter, who made their way from North America and then south across Asia and Europe into Africa during the Ice Ages.
“Vulnerable” & declining
Hippos are neither “endangered” nor “threatened,” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, since they still occur in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
But hippos are “vulnerable,” surviving mainly in protected conservation areas. The estimated 80,000 hippos left in the wild as of 2016 are about 30% fewer than they were just 20 years ago.
Those facts not withstanding, Zambia is proceeding with a scheme to cull 2,000 hippos in South Luangwa National Park over the next five years. Rangers at Kruger National Park, in South Africa, killed 59 hippos during the first 160 days of 2016, and planned to kill at least 100 more.
The Colombian government meanwhile is under intensifying pressure from ecological nativists to kill the 50-odd hippos thriving in the semi-wild at Hacienda Nápoles, the 7.7-square mile theme park now occupying the estate of the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar.
Escobar, killed in a 1993 shootout with police, left behind six hippos at his private zoo. Most of Escobar’s animals were relocated to other Latin American zoos, but the hippos escaped and went feral, eluding capture in deep swamps at the back of the property.
Thriving near the Rio Magdalena, venturing into the river at least once, the hippos and their descendants have established a small but viable population which might be seen as an insurance policy against extinction or extirpation from their Africa habitats.
Instead, despite apparently coexisting quite compatibly with all local native wildlife, and perhaps helping to keep poachers out of some habitat, the hippos are seen by some erstwhile conservationists as an “invasive species.”
Context is in order. Explains Wikipedia, “The most productive fishing areas in Colombia are in the [Rio Magdalena] basin,” but from 1975 to 2008 the annual catch fell 90%.
“The primary threats,” Wikipedia continues, “are pollution (such as human waste, mining, farming and deforestation causing siltation) and habitat loss (such as dams). Additional dams are being constructed, including El Quimbo (actually online since January 2016) and Ituango (expected operational in 2018). As a result of the pollution, heavy metals have also been detected in some commercially important fish in the river. As of 2002, 19 fish species in the river basin were recognized as threatened.
“The spectacled caiman, green iguana and brown pelican are abundant,” assesses Wikipedia, “but other animal species like the West Indian manatee, Magdalena tinamou, Todd’s parakeet, American crocodile, Colombian slider, Magdalena River turtle, Dahl’s toad-headed turtle and red-footed tortoise are in danger of extinction.”
None of these species are actually threatened in any way by the hypothetical appearance of hippos. Hippo dung, indeed, famously incubates insects favored by fish.
Only when water sources dry up does decomposing hippo dung contribute to eutrophication, the process by which a lake becomes a meadow––but usually, if a water source is no longer deep enough to afford hippos adequate feeding, bathing, and wallowing habitat, the hippos move on.
Before that occurs, hippo activity tends to make shallow ponds deeper, able to hold more water with less evaporation and runoff.
Threat to human safety
Displaced hippos seeking new habitat can present a formidable menace to humans, especially when humans cluster ever more densely around water sources.
Hippos have long been known to kill humans. Ardi, the Ardipithicus proto-human whose remains were discovered in 2009 in Ethiopia, may have been trampled by a hippo circa 4.4 million years ago.
But estimates of hippo-caused human deaths ranging from 500 to 2,900 per year appear to be based more on guesswork and projection than actual body counts.
Further, the estimates in the hundreds and thousands may include more deaths from overcrowded boats colliding with submerged hippos and overturning, much as deer “kill” about 200 people per year in the U.S. through highway accidents, than from hippos actually attacking people.
Documented cases of hippos stampeding and deliberately killing people, in recent years across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, have run into the dozens.
To put the risk from hippos somewhat into perspective, disease-transmitting mosquitoes in the same regions of Africa annually kill almost a half million people per year. Hippos make mudholes where mosquitoes breed, but so do humans and cattle, in much greater numbers.
On the whole, when water is abundant, humans and hippos mostly co-exist about as well as humans and any other large wildlife––perhaps better, because hippos persisted in great abundance for several generations after elephants, rhinos, and African lions were shot into endangerment over most of the sub-Saharan continent.
Hippos are, to be sure, a source of tooth ivory, but not to an extent encouraging ivory poachers. Hippo tooth ivory currently sells––legally––for about $9.00 U.S. per pound; elephant ivory goes for about $1,500 a pound on the black market.
Emergence as trophy target
Selling authorization to shoot hippos to trophy hunters can be lucrative, however, especially since the “Cecil” lion poaching episode in Zimbabwe in mid-2015 brought reinforced global restrictions on international shipment of lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino trophies.
The emergence of hippos as a trophy target came to light in June 2016 “following the leaking of images showing Theo De Marillac of De Marillac Safaris,” a South African hunting outfitter, “standing over the body of a slain hippo,” reported the African News Agency (ANA). Images on the De Marillac web site “show the hippo being shot as it enters the water on a stretch of the Luangwa River” in Zambia. “Other images show villagers skinning dead hippos, and two severed hippo heads,” the ANA report said.
Culling or just making a buck?
Six hippos were shot between May 22 and May 31, 2016, the ANA learned, after “The culling/trophy hunting licence was awarded by Zambian authorities to De Marillac for a period of five years as part of a program to cull the hippo population along the southern Luangwa River.
“There were questions raised by the new director of the Department of National Parks & Wildlife that the licence may not have been legal and was arranged under the now defunct wildlife authority last year. Despite this, the Department of National Parks & Wildlife DNPW has forged ahead with the contract and killing has commenced,” ANA reported.
“Since May the Department of National Parks & Wildlife have held meetings with six community resource boards,” ANA continued, “where communities were informed that whole herds of hippos, including pregnant and suckling females and their calves, would be killed.
According to an unidentified “whistle blower” cited by ANA, “indiscriminate killings would wipe out hippo populations along the river and be a contravention of the Zambia Wildlife Act because foreign hunters were involved. To the best of my knowledge, no environmental impact assessment has been prepared or submitted. Local safari operators who were initially unhappy with the issuing of trophy hunts to a foreign company are now allowing foreign clients to hunt hippos on their concessions in return for financial benefits.”
Zambian Department of National Parks & Wildlife director Paul Zyambo on June 14, 2016 suspended the hippo culling, but reinstated it just a week later.
“Thin ground scientifically”
“The government has put forward various reasons for the cull in the South Luangwa National Park,” elaborated Andy Coghan of New Scientist. “These include preventing anthrax, which hippos can spread, claims of overpopulation, and of water levels too low to support both hippos and the other wildlife. Yet there’s no current anthrax outbreak and water levels are the highest they have been in five years.”Trophy hunters are apparently paying De Marillac Safaris about $12,500 to be allowed to shoot a hippo a day for a week, and proportionally less to shoot five hippos over five days.
“They are on thin ground scientifically,” Born Free foundation chief executive Will Travers told Coghlan. “At a time when wildlife populations of multiple species are under extreme pressure across much of Africa, many, including Born Free and our supporters around the world, fundamentally question the logic of killing thousands of hippo, and turning the flood plains of the Luangwa River Valley into killing fields.”
Hippos have already been offered to trophy hunters in Zimbabe for years. Amid the rising furor in Zambia, Zimbabwean media amplified a report from the Bhejane Trust, a privately owned wildlife conservancy, that hippos seen near the Masuma Pan in Sinamatella in June 2016 were eating elephant dung.
This was a behavior, said Bhejane Trust writer Stephen Long, that “ We have often seen before and always assumed to be a sign that the grass is running out.”
But Long noted that “To my eyes, the grass still looked pretty good, so maybe they just liked the taste?”
“Gut microbial flora”
AWARE Wildlife Trust veterinarian Keith Dutlow told media that eating elephant dung “probably helps” the hippos’ “gut microbial flora.”
The report of dung-eating was widely amplified, however, as indicative of a purported need for more trophy hunters to pay to kill more hippos.
Meanwhile, disclosed Helen Bamford of the Cape Town Cape Argus, “Kruger National Park has started culling hippos and buffalo will be next. William Mabasa, spokesman for South African National Parks, said that 59 hippos had been culled and another 100 were in the firing line for later this year as well as 200 buffalo.”
“The problem is food”
Said Mabasa, “The cull is not because of lack of water. We still have plenty of water after the rain we received in March. The problem is food.”
Mabasa said that much of Kruger National Park, “especially the central areas from Skukuza to Olifants River, are just barren land with no grass,” Bamford wrote. “There are some 8,000 hippos in the park,” about 10% of the remaining wild population, “and around 300 have already died because of the drought.”
Mabasa “said the meat from the culled animals was currently being sold to staff,” Bamford continued.
Added Mabasa, “We are in the process of getting our abattoir (slaughterhouse) registered so that we can supply hippo meat to needy nonprofit organizations around the park.”