The Hippopotamus by Francis C. Woodworth


Every traveler, who has seen the hippopotamus in his native haunts, and who has attempted to give a description of the animal, represents him as exceedingly formidable, when he is irritated, and when he can get a chance to fight his battle in the water. On land, he is unwieldy and awkward; so that, when he is pursued by an enemy, he usually takes to his favorite element. There he plunges in head foremost, and sinks to the bottom, where it is said he finds no difficulty in moving with the same pace as when upon land, in the open air. He cannot, however, continue under water for any great length of time. He is obliged to rise to the surface, to take breath. Severe battles sometimes take place between the males, and they make sad havoc before they get through.

Great masses of flesh, torn out by their terrible jaws, mark the spot where one of these encounters has occurred. It not unfrequently happens that one or even both perish on the spot. On the banks of the Nile, whole fields of grain and sugar cane are sometimes destroyed by these animals.

Clapperton, the enterprising traveler, informs us that, when on a warlike expedition, he had convincing evidence that the hippopotamus is fond of music. "As the expedition passed along the banks of the lake at sunrise," says he, "these uncouth and stupendous animals followed the sound of the drums the whole length of the water, sometimes approaching so close to the shore, that the spray they spouted from their mouths reached the people, who were passing along the banks. I counted fifteen, at one time, sporting on the surface of the water."

The following account of hunting the hippopotamus is given by Dr. Edward Russell: "One of the animals we killed was of an enormous size. We fought with him for four good hours by night, and came very near losing our large boat, and probably our lives too, owing to the fury of the animal. As soon as he spied the hunters in the small canoe, he dashed at them with all his might, dragged the canoe with him under the water, and smashed it to pieces. The two hunters escaped with difficulty. Of twenty-five musket balls aimed at the head, only one pierced the skin and the bones of the nose. At each snorting, the animal spouted out large streams of blood on the boat. The rest of the balls stuck in the thick hide. At last, we availed ourselves of a swivel; but it was not until we had discharged five balls from it, at the distance of a few feet, that the huge animal gave up the ghost. The darkness of the night increased the danger of the contest, for this gigantic enemy tossed our boat about in the stream at his pleasure; and it was a fortunate moment for us that he gave up the struggle, as he had carried us into a complete labyrinth of rocks, which, in the midst of the confusion, none of our crew had observed."

In Egypt they have a singular mode of catching the hippopotamus. They throw large quantities of dried peas on the bank of the river along which the animal is expected to pass. He devours these peas greedily. The dry food disposes the animal to drink; and after drinking, the peas swell in his stomach, and the poor fellow is destroyed.

"I have seen," says a traveler, "a hippopotamus open his mouth, fix one tooth on the side of a boat, and another on the second plank under the keel—that is, four feet distant from each other—pierce the side through and through, and in this manner sink the boat. When the negroes go a-fishing, the same traveler informs us, "in their canoes, and meet with a hippopotamus, they throw fish to him; and then he passes on, without disturbing their fishing any more. Once, when our boat was near shore, I saw a hippopotamus get underneath it, lift it above the water upon his back, and overset it, with six men who were in it."

"We dare not," says another traveler, "irritate the hippopotamus in the water, since an adventure happened which came near proving fatal to the men. They were going in a small canoe, to kill one of these animals in a river, where there were some eight or ten feet of water. After they had discovered him walking at the bottom of the river, according to his custom, they wounded him with a long lance, which so greatly irritated him, that he rose immediately to the surface of the water, regarded them with a terrible look, opened his mouth, and with one bite took a great piece out of the side of the canoe, and very nearly overturned it, but he plunged again almost directly to the bottom of the river."