Chapter 15 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid


Herodotus, Aristotle, Diodorus, and Pliny have all given descriptions more or less correct of the hippopotamus, river-horse, or zeekoe (sea-cow) of the South African Dutch.

So great has been the interest taken in this animal, of which European people have long read, but never until lately seen, that the Zoological Society cleared 10,000 pounds in the year of the Great Exhibition of 1851, by their specimens exhibited in the gardens at Regent’s Park.

Hippopotami procured from Northern Africa were not uncommon in the Roman spectacles. Afterwards, the knowledge of them became lost to Europe for several hundred years; and, according to the authority of several writers, they entirely disappeared from the Nile.

Several centuries after they had been shown in Rome and Constantinople, it was stated that hippopotami could not be transported alive to a foreign country; but the progress of civilisation has refuted this erroneous hypothesis, and the harsh, heavy sound of its voice, since May, 1850, has been familiar to the frequenters of a London park.

According to Michael Boyn, the hippopotamus has been found in the rivers of China. Marsden has placed them in Sumatra, and others say they exist in the Indus, but these statements have never been sustained by well-authenticated facts, and the creature is now believed to be exclusively a native of Africa.

Monsieur Desmoulins describes two species,—one the H. Capensis, or the hippopotamus of the Cape, and the H. Senegalensis of the Senegal river.

How the animal obtained its name would be difficult to imagine, since a quadruped more unlike a horse could hardly exist.

When in the water, the hippopotamus can place its eyes, ears, and nose on a level with the surface, and thus see, hear, and breathe, with but little danger of being injured by a shot. It is often ferocious in this element, where it can handle itself with much ease; but on dry land it is unwieldy, and, conscious of its awkwardness, it is rather timid and sometimes cowardly.

These huge creatures are supposed to serve a good purpose by uprooting and destroying large water-plants that might otherwise obstruct the current of the stream and hinder the drainage of the surrounding country.

The hide of the hippopotamus is used by the natives for many purposes. Although soft when stripped off, it becomes so hard, when thoroughly dry, that the Africans manufacture spears and shields of it.

Many of the Cape colonists are very fond of what they call “zeekoe speek,” which is a portion of the flesh salted and preserved.

The greatest value which the hippopotamus has, in the eyes of man, is found in its teeth,—its large canine tusks being the finest ivory known, and much prized by the dentists. It keeps its colour much better, and lasts longer than any other used in the manufacture of artificial teeth.

Tusks of the hippopotamus are sometimes found sixteen inches in length, and weighing as much as a dozen pounds. Travellers have even affirmed that some have been seen measuring twenty-six inches in length; but no specimens of this size have as yet been exhibited in the museums of Europe.

The hide of a full-grown hippopotamus is thicker than that of the rhinoceros; otherwise, it very much resembles the latter. Its thickness protects the animal against the poisoned arrows and javelins of the natives. But for this, it would soon become extinct in the rivers of Africa, since, unlike most animals, there is no difficulty in approaching the hippopotamus within bow-shot distance. It can only be killed by the natives after a great deal of trouble combined with ingenuity.

The plan generally adopted is, by digging pits in places where the hippopotami are known to pass in leaving the water to feed on the herbage of the neighbouring plain. These pits have to be dug in the rainy season, when the ground is soft; for during the dry months the earth becomes so hard as to resist the poor implement used by the natives in place of a spade. The pit is concealed with much care, and as months may pass without a hippopotamus straying into the trap, it may be imagined how strong an effort of perseverance and patience is required in capturing one of these amphibious creatures.

Another method of killing them is by suspending heavy pointed beams over their paths, where they proceed from the river to the meadows adjoining. These beams are elevated thirty or forty feet high, by a line which extends across the sea-cow’s track. This line is connected with a trigger, and when rudely dragged by the force of the moving body, the beam descends upon the animal’s back, burying the sharp point in its flesh.

The use of fire-arms is now becoming general among the natives of Africa; and, as the value of hippopotamus ivory well repays the trouble of procuring it, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the ungainly animal, now one of the commonest sights in the rivers of Southern Africa, will soon become one of the rarest.