Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Noisy neighbours

This morning I was woken at 3 am by a heart-stopping bellow.

It was a hippo, standing at the garden fence, two metres from my bedroom window.

Hippos bellow at a volume of 115 decibels. A jack hammer at five metres has a volume of 100 decibels, and 107 decibels is the level at which you begin to feel pain. So this was a bit of a shock. Of course, at that hour any noise sounds unnaturally loud. I wondered sleepily whether to stagger out and measure the din with my nifty little decibel meter (which I use for playback experiments with the mongooses), but drowsiness overcame scientific curiosity.
I don't think the hippo intended it as a personal message, he was simply answering other hippos, near and far, who were also bellowing their hearts out. I've no idea why.

 A hippo's huge lower incisors and scimitar-like canines (bigger in males than females) are designed solely for fighting. When cropping grass, hippos use the hard inner linings of their lips, then grind up the spoils with their rear molars. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Rude awakenings aside, I love living right next door to one of the world's last species of megafauna. I adore hearing them snuffle and snort, and grunt and chortle, throughout the day. At night, of course, I never know when a hippo is going to trundle by, leaving behind splashes of chaff-like faeces sprayed on prominent trees or shrubs. One evening I walked right into a hippo that was standing in the front yard. The dogs were madly barking, and I assumed it was at the resident porcupine, so I dashed out with an armful of root vegetables (see here for an explanation of this bizarre reaction). I wasn't using a flashlight so I didn't see the hippo (they are dark grey) until I was about one metre away. We both stared at one another for a moment and then I fled. They don't seem to eat root vegetables.

While the hippos around here always behave with the utmost courtesy, I've heard scary stories of them attacking people further upstream, where they cultivate mangos and tensions run high. You see, in the dry season the hippos venture into the orchards in pursuit of the lush grass, but they inadvertently break the trees so the orchardists shoot them. Consequently the hippos don't feel too fond of people. If you've ever wondered what it'd be like to be chased by an angry hippo, you can see some dramatic photos of it here (it's worth looking at all three shots).

The hippo's closest living relatives are the whales, but they no longer keep in touch. Whales and hippos have their own order, called – wait for it - Whippomorpha (who is responsible for these names??) 

When I first came to Africa, hippos were the species I found most shocking and delightful. You see rivers and lakes look pretty much the same the world over (the usual bog standard plants and ubiquitous waterfowl), so when you're driving over a bridge on the highway and glance down, you're subconsciously expecting to see a duck or an egret, or maybe even a kingfisher. The sight of a massive great mammal lolling in the water is an utter shock. After six years living in the low veld, I think I've become used to them because when I travel overseas I find myself staring disconsolately at waterways, feeling bereft.

I have to admit that I initially assumed hippos to be slow, lethargic animals, fully preoccupied with their own watery concerns. I couldn't have been more wrong. Take a stroll down to the river bank and every eye is on you; constantly. Hippos are very astute and immensely interested in any comings and goings on land. For example, about a month ago I was defrosting my freezer (which sits in a roofed area outside) and I accidentally dropped a large bag of dog bones (that's bones for dogs, not bones of dogs; contrary to the signs, I'm not a psychopathic killer). The bones made a stupendous clatter hitting the concrete floor, which set the hippos bellowing, their calls relaying - animal to animal - both up and down river. 'Oh dear', I thought, feeling strangely embarrassed by the cacophony I'd caused, 'they won't be grazing around here tonight.' Half an hour later, as soon as it got dark, three huge hippos appeared at my back fence, peering in to find out what all the noise was about.

Relaxing in the bath all day doesn't just help you escape from the heat, bugs and predators, it lets you take the weight off your feet. And when you're hippo-sized (up to 3000 kg) buoyancy is a real energy saver. In water, a hippo's pulse drops from 60 to 20 beats per minute and its breathing slows from 7-10 breaths per minute to less than one. Now that's what I call winding down! Photo by Louise Meintjes.


  1. How how do you know for sure they do not like root vegetables? They might if you give it to them, instead you turned tail and fled not even flinging the stuff down in your terror. LOL!! That sure makes a picture in my head I can smile at Lynda, but the fact of the matter is they CAN be dangerous as you say and I would have fled too. :)

    At the one place where I stayed they came almost every night to crop our lawn. Who needs mowers when these are so willing to do the job for you? Okay, you have to watch where you walk the next morning as they sure do leave lots of calling cards. :)

    I did not realize you were not from here? So I am wondering how you got into the work you are doing? It is such a different life to anything overseas but one when you are used to it, is like nothing else on earth and there is no going back to living and "ordinary" life afterwards.

    Are you sure about the dog bones? LOL!!

    A wonderful post again Lynda. I love the humour in your writing.

  2. Joan,
    I'm actually a closet Aussie. A life-long obsession with animals led inevitably to holidays in Africa, where (to quote John Denver) I found myself 'coming home to a place I'd never been before'. I decided to chuck my old life and follow my heart. I started out as a 12-month volunteer on the Kalahari Meerkat Project, but falling victim to mongoose-addiction, I stayed on, first as manager and then to do my PhD.
    What I'm going to do when my current funding (postdoc) runs out, I've no idea. As you say, there's no going back!

  3. Hi Lynda, I enjoyed this post very much. It brought back many memories of close encounters I have had with hippos, on land and on the river, on our family farm back in Zimbabwe, when it was still Rhodesia and also along the Zambesi River.
    Unfortunately we do not have any hippos that I know of in the Eastern Cape, so I will definitely have to make a pilgrimage up North at some stage, to renew my acquaintance with these fascinating creatures.

  4. Hey! Am actually heading out to the meerkat project in a month's time - doing a PhD on meerkats at Cambridge! Great to find your blog. I'm at www.kalahari-kirsty.blogspot.com

  5. Hello
    I'am happy I've found your link on Joan's Blog:
    yours is very interesting for me.
    Nice stories and very good pictures.
    Have a nice Sunday.

  6. Max-e,
    It's as good an excuse as any to take a holiday!
    However, there was Huberta the hippo, who wandered from Zululand down to East London back in the early 1930s...
    You can read a children's version of her story here: http://www.essortment.com/all/animalsstories_rxak.htm

  7. Kirsty,
    Well done! I know you'll have a fantastic time at the Meerkat Project. I'm also really pleased that you'll be blogging about your field experiences; it seems to a rarity.
    Good luck!

  8. Andrea,
    Thank you for the encouragement; I'm glad you like it.


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