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The "River Horse" Rides Again

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Issue: 75 Section: Baby Animals Geography: Africa Topics: cuteness

March 13, 2011

The "River Horse" Rides Again

Hippos keep on hippoing

by Tim McSorley

The hippopotamus has been known at the "Beast of the Nile", and has traversed popular imaginations, from virility symbols to chess openings, from polkas to the Behemoth in the Book of Job. Photo: belgianchocolate

For such a large and immovable animal, the hippopotamus plays a constantly shifting role in our popular imagination. A symbol of the god of virility in ancient Egypt, it was also brought to the Colosseum of Rome to fight gladiators. The hippo has inspired names for everything from children's games, to polkas and chess openings.

The fourth largest creature in the world, the hippopotamus naturally inhabits parts of north-eastern Africa, but populations extend west to Ghana and south into central and southern Africa. Once known to Greeks and Romans as the "Beast of the Nile," it no longer inhabits its historic habitat.

Not very social animals, hippos will still live in pod groupings. Photo: Imani en Hermien

Weighing up to 4,000 pounds, the "river horse" is often considered to be a relative of the pig, but is actually part of the porpoise family.

While the hippo is reputed to have a temper, it is only territorial over small parts of the Nile, about 250 meters long. Most of a hippo's life will be spent in that tract of water, but in the evening it will wander as far as eight kilometres inland to graze on grass. Natural herbivores, hippos have only been known to eat meat in times of nutritional distress. And while they give off the appearance of lazy immobility, hippos can run at a speed of up to 30 kilometres per hour. Their girth also allows them to sink to the bottom of rivers and walk or run along the river bed.

Not very social animals, hippos will still live in pod groupings. Social attachment only seems to develop between mothers and daughters, if at all. At the same time, hippos will lay close together when on land, although the reason for this is unclear.

Like their disappearance from the shores of the Nile in Egypt, the hippopotamus' population in general is diminishing. The largest decrease has been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where, since the 1970s, populations have dropped from some 29,000 to a maximum of 800. Worldwide, the population is placed at a maximum of 150,000 as of 2006, a decrease of up to 20 per cent from the last count in 1996, prompting the UN to place it on its vulnerable species list.

But there may be hope for re-population: Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar kept hippos at an estate east of Medellin in Colombia. When he died, the hippos were left on the estate, too difficult to seize. As of 2007, they have reproduced, from the existing four to 16. It is still unknown what impact they may have on the Colombian ecosystem.

Baby animals. Because a serious world needs serious cuteness.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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