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The Hippopotamus - Harper's


The hippopotamus, or river-horse, is found exclusively in the great rivers, lakes, and swamps of Africa. Fossil remains of extinct species have been discovered in both Europe and Asia, but ages have passed since they existed. This animal is amphibious, and can remain under water five minutes or more without breathing. When it comes to the surface it snorts in a terrible manner, and can be heard at a great distance. It is never found far away from its native element, to which it beats a retreat at the least alarm. Travellers along the White Nile and in Central Africa often encounter enormous herds of these ungainly creatures sometimes lying in the water, their huge heads projecting like the summit of a rock, sometimes basking on the shore in the muddy ooze, or grazing on the river-bank; for this animal is a strict vegetarian, and the broad fields of grain and rice along the Upper Nile suffer constantly from its depredations.

The hippopotamus is a hideous-looking beast. It has an enormous mouth, armed with four great tusks that appear viciously prominent beneath its great leathern lips. These tusks are so powerful that a hippopotamus has been known to cut holes through the iron plates of a Nile steamer with one blow. Its eyes are very small, but protruding, and placed on the top of its head. Its body resembles a huge hogshead perched on four short, stumpy legs. A full-grown animal will sometimes measure twelve feet in length and as much in circumference. The hide of this beast is very thick and strong, and is used to make whips. Ordinary bullets, unless they strike near the ear, rattle off the sides of this King of the Nile like small shot. Sir Samuel Baker, the African traveller, relates an encounter with a large bull hippopotamus which was taking an evening stroll on the bank of the river, quietly munching grass. Baker and his attendant were armed only with rifles. They aimed and fired, hitting as near the ear as possible, but the great beast only shook its head and trotted off. At the sound of firing the remainder of the party hurried up, and poured a volley of musketry at the retreating beast, but the hippopotamus walked coolly to the edge of a steep cliff, about eighteen feet high, and with a clumsy jump and a tremendous splash vanished in the water. As the flesh of the hippopotamus, which is said to resemble pork in flavor, was much desired as food by the soldiers under Baker's charge, he had a small explosive shell constructed, which, fired into the creature's brain, seldom failed to leave its huge body floating dead on the surface of the river.


The natives are very fond of hippopotamus flesh, and resort to many expedients to secure the desired delicacy. Hunting this beast is dangerous sport, for in the water it is master of the situation, and will throw a canoe in the air, or crunch it to pieces with its terrible jaws. In Southern Africa, Dr. Livingstone encountered a tribe of natives called Makombwé who were hereditary hippopotamus-hunters, and followed no other occupation, as, when their game grew scarce at one spot, they removed to another. They built temporary huts on the lonely grassy islands in the rivers and great lakes, where the hippopotami were sure to come to enjoy the luxurious pasturage, and while the women cultivated garden patches, the men, with extraordinary courage and daring, followed the dangerous sport which passes down among them from father to son. When they hunt, each canoe is manned by two men. The canoes are very light, scarcely half an inch in thickness, and shaped somewhat like a racing boat. Each man uses a broad, short paddle, and as the canoe is noiselessly propelled toward a sleeping hippopotamus not a ripple is raised on the water. Not a word passes between the two hunters, but as they silently approach the prey the harpooner rises cautiously, and with sure aim plunges the weapon toward the monster's heart. Both hunters now seize their paddles and push away for their lives, for the infuriated beast springs toward them, its enormous jaws extended, and often succeeds in crushing the frail canoe to splinters. The hunters, if thrown in the water, immediately dive—as the beast looks for them on the surface—and make for the shore. Their prey is soon secured, for the well-aimed harpoon has done its work, and the hippopotamus is soon forced to succumb. Should it be under water, its whereabouts is indicated by a float on the end of the long harpoon rope, and it is easily dragged ashore.

Travellers on the Nile are often placed in great peril by the attacks of these beasts, which although said to be inoffensive when not molested, are so easily enraged that the noise of a passing boat excites them to terrible fury. Baker relates being roused one clear moonlight night by a hoarse wild snorting, which he at once recognized as the voice of a furious hippopotamus. He rushed on deck, and discovered a large specimen of this beast charging on the boat with indescribable rage. The small boats towed astern were crunched to pieces in a moment, and so rapid were the movements of this animal, as it roared and plunged in a cloud of foam and wave, that it was next to impossible to take aim at the small vulnerable spot on its head. At length, however, it appeared to be wounded, and retired to the high reeds along the shore. But it soon returned, snorting and blowing more furiously than ever, and continued its attack until its head was fairly riddled with bullets, and it rolled over and over, dead at last.

Young hippopotami have been captured and placed in zoological gardens, but as they become old they grow savage, and are very hard to manage. Some fine specimens were formerly in the Jardin des Plantes at Paris. They ate all kinds of vegetables and grass, and slept nearly all day, generally lying half in and half out of the big water tank provided for them.

The hippopotamus is supposed by many to be identical with the behemoth of Scripture, which is described as a beast "that lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens." It is also spoken of as one that "eateth grass as an ox," and that "drinketh up a river," and the "willows of the brook compass him about."