‘These kinds of interactions are only likely to increase in the near future as populations in sub-Saharan Africa grow,’ says Douglas McCauley, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied hippo populations. ‘It is worth pointing out that Niger has the highest population growth rate on Earth. If growth and patterns of landscape use continue along this trajectory, there is simply not going to be space left for hippos on much of the continent,’ he says. According to McCauley, aggressive encounters with hippos usually happen in three circumstances: at night, when hippos are foraging in the bush; during fishing expeditions in hippo territory; and when hippos raid crops looking for an easy meal.
‘Managing hippo-human conflict in some ways is easier than other types of wildlife conflict because hippos have very predictable habitat and space needs,’ says McCauley. Simple barriers that keep hippos in refuges prevent them entering crop fields and keeps humans and hippos safe.
‘Hippos, despite Disney’s depiction, are not very agile,’ he adds. ‘A single low-strung electrified wire can deter them. Cost is always a barrier in sub-Saharan Africa, but $100 is often all that’s needed to set up many kilometres of barrier.’
While there is funding for programmes to manage conflict between lions, elephants and pastoralists, McCauley says there yet to be the same interest from donors in hippo-human conflict: ‘The actual number of hippo fatalities every year are quite low, but they leave a strong impression upon cultures. Hippos are to many rural Africans what wolves are to Americans – a subject of intrigue.’
In deep historical time, hippos were present as far north as the UK and the Mediterranean. ‘Intolerance of their presence by humans is almost certainly a part of the reason they are now extinct in these places,’ McCauley adds.
This story was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine