Whenever I leave for Africa I am always asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Snakes. Alligators. Spiders. Lions.”
“Well,” I usually reply, “There are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”
“So crocodiles, whatever.”
I have a healthy respect for crocodiles. Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged and invisible crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leaped in four different directions. I’m careful around bodies of water.
Spiders? There are very few lethal spiders in southern Africa – no, not afraid of spiders anywhere in the world.
Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! It’s running away from us! There’s breakfast! And it’s fat and slow! But there are only about 20,000 lions left in the wild, down from 200,000 in 1975. In 2001, Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year, but banned the practice in 2007. By then many of the males taken were young, requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.
Now hippos (Hippopotamus amphibious) – those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that sound like tubas bent out of shape - hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.
Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They eat grass. It’s all a matter of attitude, aggressiveness and territory. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. Most human deaths occur on or near water. And you never know what might set them off.
In 2002, I was on a game drive with six people in an open-sided Land Cruiser. Several nearby ponds were full of laid-back hippos – blimps floating in the water. It was that half-hour before sunset when the lighting was incredible and our subjects were cooperative. We carefully kept our distance and made sure we didn’t position ourselves between the hippos we found on land and their ponds. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.
Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle. Since a hippo’s top speed is around twenty miles per hour, he was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the autofocus kept singing zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.
Luckily, the hippo charged on a tangent and the engine of our vehicle started immediately. As we moved away at a right angle, the hippo ran past the bumper and continued on into the bush for thirty yards before he stopped to wonder where we had gone.
Afraid of hippos? Not really. But I have an extremely healthy respect for them.