Tales of Happy Hippos

Tales of Happy Hippos

The hippopotamus, with its massive teeth and weight up to four tons, can be a dangerous animal. It is generally docile unless provoked; then it can become a fearful antagonist. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, a hippo may become a rogue and attack humans. Most Africans regard this animal with no more alarm than would an American motorist breaking for livestock.

In general the people of sub—Saharan Africa look on the hippo with fondness and equanimity. A few years ago hippos would graze on the succulent turf of the Jinja Golf Course near Lake Victoria, Uganda. Rather than exterminating the intruders, officials made a rule: "If a ball lands in a hippo's footprint, it may be removed and dropped onto adjacent turf without penalty."

The hippopotamus is well named "the river horse," for it beats the heat by spending as much time as possible in lakes, streams, and mud wallows. Around Lake Edward, Uganda, residents witnessed a hippo that, in a playful mood, would nip the tail of a nearby wading elephant. The huge pachyderm was not amused by the hippo's antics and would whirl around in great outrage. The hippo always submerged quickly, only to reappear at the tail end of another elephant to repeat its performance. The playful hippo continued its prank until the occasion when it didn't submerge rapidly enough to escape the wrath of an annoyed elephant.

A few hippos have even become folk heroes. Among the most celebrated was a large hippo affectionately known as Huberta. Upon the discovery that she was a male, her name was appropriately changed to Hubert.

Hippos rarely wander more than a half day's walk from their home waters, but not Hubert. In 1928 he set out from St. Lucia Bay in Natal and continued on a trip of over 1,000 miles that took him through drought—stricken South Africa.

At the very outset of his long walk, backcountry villagers quickly observed that rain often followed his arrival in the area. He was soon warmly welcomed and even revered as a special spirit sent to relieve the drought. When he entered more settled regions, local newspapers began to report regularly on his progress.

Hubert's journey was thus fully documented all along the route. His arrival in a city often took on the aspect of a festival, as children ran alongside him, adults offered food, and everyone cheered him on. Most astonishingly, Hubert seemed to be aware that he was creating a sensation. He sought out populated areas, and never during his trek did he come in contact with another hippo.

He once tried to enter a theater in which a Judy Garland movie was playing but was ushered out by the manager. No doubt the manager was convinced that Hubert would be a distraction; moreover none of the seats would support the three—ton visitor. For over two years Hubert continued his leisurely trip, wandering casually along highways or city streets, grazing calmly in parks, and wallowing languidly in lakes, streams, or mud holes. Newspapers and radios continued to report daily on the whereabouts and doings of this strange nomad. He had become a pet of the people of South Africa, and a law was passed to protect him.

Hubert's journey was not to continue indefinitely, since all things, good or bad, do come to an end, however ignoble. In April of 1931 Hubert stopped to have lunch in a large vegetable garden. The irate, trigger—happy landowner did not approve and promptly shot him. Thus ended the saga and wanderings of Hubert the Hippo, and the world will never know how much longer he might have traveled.

A more recent folk hero among hippopotamuses was Hugo the Hippo, whose story began in 1966. Frolicsome two—ton Hugo captured the fancy of the citizens of Tanzania when he began to emerge regularly from the milky waters of Kurasini Creek outside of Dar es Salaam. He would spend time cavorting with children and dogs on the bank and would follow herds of cattle as if compiling an investigative report on their habits to share with his companions.

Like all hippos, Hugo was possessed of a gargantuan appetite. This sometimes led him into the fields of nearby farmers, where pumpkins were his favorite fare. Since Hugo was devastating the local crops, the farmers clamored for his hide., He was saved, however, by public sentiment, which was reflected in one of the most popular Tanzanian songs of the day.

The hippo's name is Hugo

He lives in Hippo Bay.

He does not need finances,

He does not smoke or drink,

He only needs his chances

To stay alive and sing.

No one can deny the hippo's potential for becoming a dangerous adversary. But when he is in a stream surrounded by a floating pasture of water plants, among egrets, cormorants, and gulls, the hippo becomes an essential character of the peaceable kingdom.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth