Over the next five years, 2,000 of them will be killed in the valley of the Luanwga River, a tributary of the Zambezi. On June 14, in response to criticism, the cull was put on hold, ‘to allow for extensive consultations’. However, the Foundation claims that it was reinstated following a Ministry of Arts and Tourism meeting on June 22. A contract to shoot the animals, it’s alleged, has been given to Theo De Marillac, a South African safari operator.
Government officials say there are too many hippos along the Luanwga and water levels have fallen too low to support them. They claim, also, that reducing hippo numbers would prevent the spread of anthrax. Critics argue, however, that there is no evidence that hippo numbers are unusually high, nor have rainfall and river data been published showing that the Luangwa can’t support the animals. Hippos spread anthrax during epidemics but there isn’t one in Zambia at present. How could an indiscriminate cull of hippos prevent future outbreaks, they ask?
A commercial hunting operation, it’s claimed, is being disguised as population management. Trophy hunters will carry out the killing, paying for the privilege of doing so. The Lusaka Times published a leaked photograph of De Marillac, describing him as the ‘hippo killer of the Luangwa’. He is standing, gun in hand, over a victim. An advertisement on the Web says that clients will ‘experience the rare and exciting opportunity of participating in a controlled hippo hunt in Zambia’s Upper and Lower Lupandi’. It offers ‘a very exciting adrenalin-pumping safari’.
‘Hippopotamus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘river horse’. This fat creature, with short stubby legs, resembles a pig rather than a horse and hails from the even-toed branch of hoofed mammals, which includes the pig family. DNA profiling shows the hippo’s closest living relatives are the whales and dolphins, with which it shared a common ancestor 55 million years ago. The horse belongs to the odd-toed line of ungulates which had separated from the even-toed one 10m years earlier.
The freshwater equivalent of the giant ocean mammals, the hippo is an amphibious vegetarian. There are two surviving species. The pigmy hippo, classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN, isn’t found in Zambia. The species living along the Luangwa is the common one, listed as ‘Vulnerable’. At least one other hippo species was alive until comparatively recently; it lived on the island of Madagascar up to a thousand years ago.
An incident in 1976 intrigues hippo experts. That year, people living in Belo-sur-Mer, on the island’s west coast, described a black cow-sized creature which wandered into their village. It made grunting sounds, entered the water and disappeared. A villager, skilled at mimicking animal sounds, imitated the noises it made. They closely resembled those of the common hippo although the man had never left the island, nor had he previously heard hippo sounds.
There were at least three ancient hippo species in Europe. Were there ‘water horses’ in Ireland long ago?
Able to run fast over short distances, hippos can be unpredictable and aggressive. Grazing cattle aren’t safe from them and hippos kill more people in Africa than any other mammal. Boats are attacked occasionally. In November 2014, an adult and 12 children, on their way to school, died when their boat was attacked near Niamey, capital of Niger. The same hippo killed a teenager the following year and was shot.
Zambia’s conservation record isn’t good. In the 1980s, the Luangwa valley held the third largest concentration of black rhinos in the world. The government of the day, however, allowed the endangered animals to be hunted and poached to extinction.
Is the hippo to suffer a similar fate? Unless President Edgar Lungu intervenes, entire pods of hippos, including pregnant females and calves, will be slaughtered in Zambia.