I would like to tell you that the first sound I ever heard a hippo make was the magical one that I am listening to right now. A strange combination of whale and horny cow (or at least that’s how the Masai describe my impression of it), the call of the hippo has always seemed almost mystical to me and is what got me first interested in these much understudied animals. As I stood before the cavernous riverbank of the Mara, I imagine the wildebeest crossing in the hundreds and the crocodiles lying up along the bank. I also picture the long line of tourist vehicles that will soon squat along the edge watching the action. Today it is just me and Wilson and I listened, enchanted once more, to the deep reverberating whistle of the hippo as it echoes off the river’s walls and filled my chest.
Like I said, I would like to tell you it was this magical tune that initially warmed my heart to the hippo. But I would be lying. In fact, the first noise I ever heard that was produced by a hippo was a metallic clang, clang, clang, ping, ping, ping, ping. This is the sound that comes from the other end of a hippo. In this case a hippo at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. Many years ago, I went to an overnight camp held at the zoo and worked with the hippos (so yes, I paid to pick up shit). My first day behind the scenes with the hippos and the big female, Cleo (the oldest hippo in captivity – nearly 40 at the time) was defecating along the metal wall of her indoor tank. As she flickered her tail, equipped with special bristles like a toothbrush for maximum effect, her dung flew left, right, and four feet into the air whacking every solid object around her. It wasn’t until after she finished this terrific show of hippo tail dexterity that she made the sweet call that would captivate me for years to come and cost me two years of my life.
Back on the river’s edge, I put the camera back in the car, having captured enough hippo “yawns” for the day (hippos like to show off their teeth and can spread their massive jaws almost 180 degrees). I returned to the bank to say good-bye to my previous and currently neglected love. I was saluted with the usual hippo dung-fling and took that as a sign that it was time to get back to my current endeavor – the birds.
However, if I thought I was done seeing hippos for the day I was surely mistaken. On the drive home a huge male hippo with a nice red gash under his throat blocked our path. As the car descended into a small river crossing, the hippo turned to face us and then trotted away, its buttocks shaking in defeat. Given the hour (only about 4:30
PM) he was probably a young male, who had been kicked out of the river for some unacceptable escapades. The gash was a mark that he had lost his first battle of the day and wasn’t interested in any further clashes.