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Home > What I Know About... > The Hippopotamus Encounter

The Hippopotamus Encounter

by Rod Hackney

Several days of our North Carolina Zoo team's stay in Cameroon for the elephant collaring project were spent in the capital of the Northern Province, Garoua.

Garoua has a population of more than 100,000 and, surprisingly for a town located so far in the interior, it also has Cameroon's third largest port, situated along the banks of the Benoue River.

We spent one afternoon driving around the city in a drizzling rain with our host, Dr. Martin Tchamba, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature's elephant conservation programs in Cameroon. And the highlight of the tour had to be our encounter with "Afrika," the hippopotamus.

Tchamba insisted that we catch this local tourist attraction down at the river near an abandoned manufacturing plant. As the story goes, in 1993 four young men found an infant female hippo, its mother ostensibly killed by poachers, hanging around a bridge on the edge of town. They began feeding the animal grain and soon had it "domesticated" to the point that she tolerated people surprising well.

The four young entrepreneurs, now in their 20s, have been able to turn the hippo into their livelihoods. Each day at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., Afrika, who now weighs several thousand pounds, comes waddling out of the water to receive her daily feedings. Hundreds of people flock to the waterfront to see the hippo and have their picture taken with her for 100 francs (about 25 cents) each.

A tip of 500 francs to Oumarou, one of the hippo's caretakers, gave our group special access for videotaping, and frankly, several closer calls with Afrika's gaping jaws and eight-inch-long teeth than I would have liked. With the full knowledge that more people are killed in Africa each year by hippos than practically any other animal, I spent a lot of time backing away while Oumarou insisted on leading his pet straight into my video camera lens.

Meanwhile, after lamenting several times that "someone was going to get killed," N.C. Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Michael Loomis relented to repeated pleas from the crowd to at least pet the hippo. Whereupon, Oumaru leaped on the animal's back facing backwards to show the good doctor just how tame his hippo actually was. Loomis approached tenuously to touch the hippo's rump and was suddenly grabbed by the arms and hoisted onto the animal's back by Oumaru.

Laughing as he dismounted in somewhat less-than-graceful fashion, the doctor's ride hardly lasted the eight-second minimum for a rodeo event back home. But the video is going to make a great conversation piece for the zoo's staff Christmas party this year.

About the author:

Rod Hackney is the Public Relations Manager at the North Carolina Zoological Park.

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