Hippos are responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal. A full-grown hippo weighs up to 3 1/2 tons. Hippos are herbivores that live on grass and shrubs. They have no sweat glands but produce a red viscous fluid to keep cool. This gave rise to the myth that hippos “sweat blood.” Their Latin name means “river horse” even though hippos are more closely related to whales than horses.
Hippos can’t swim. They sink in a river or lake then walk along the muddy bottom. They can hold their breath for five minutes. When ready to surface, they kick off the bottom and proper themselves upwards.
Hippos rarely breed in captivity. As a result, most zoo hippos have been caught in the wild. The cost to capture a hippo and transport it to a North American zoo can exceed $250,000. The process is difficult and dangerous. Even though young hippos are selected, they still weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
Targeted hippos are shot in the neck with a tranquilizer dart causing temporary paralysis. (Prior to 1966, a crossbow was used to propel the dart.) The hippo must be on dry land otherwise it can drown. The capture team has 15 minutes before the drug wears off. If the drug dose is too large, the animal will suffer cardiac arrest.
Once the drug takes effect, the hippo is covered with a net and dragged through the mud by a road grader. A noose is thrown around the hippo’s neck and the animal is secured with ropes. The hippo is then lifted with the road grader and secured in a wood crate in the back of a large truck. When the animal awakens, it starts to bellow and thrash. This can cause the bull male from a nearby herd to charge the truck in an effort to free the beast. The engine of the road grader is “revved” loud to scare off the bull.
The captured hippo is driven to a holding facility. Handlers continually douse the animal with water to keep it cool. The hippo is given a thorough medical exam. The beast will typically endure a long train journey before being transported overseas via plane or boat.
The first hippo kept in captivity was displayed at the London Zoo in 1850. A two-day old calf named “Obaysch” was caught on the White Nile after its parents were killed by Egyptian hunters. The hunters transported the animal 1,200 miles to Cairo feeding it with cow milk and maize. Abbas Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, agreed to trade the hippo, a lioness and a cheetah to Great Britain for a pack of greyhounds. The young hippo arrived at the London Zoo weighing over 1,000 pounds. The animal became an instant hit attracting 10,000 people a day (including Queen Victoria).
In the 1980’s, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar obtained four hippos from a New Orleans zoo. He kept the animals on his Colombia ranch. After Escobar’s murder in 1993, the hippos escaped. Local farmers complained when the animals destroyed their crops. Three of the hippos were tracked down and killed. The fourth was never found.
Hippos were considered a female deity of pregnancy in ancient Egypt. Hippo ivory tusks are valued more highly than elephant tusks because they do not turn yellow with age. George Washington’s false teeth were carved from hippo tusks (not from wood as commonly thought).