During breakfast on the morning of 9th May, guests were treated to a wonderful sight right next to the viewing deck. One of our resident hippos had given birth during the night to a calf. The birth takes place under the water and the newborn surfaces immediately to take his first breath. The bit of blood that naturally accompanied the birth process inevitably attracted a number of the resident crocodiles to the site. While they lined up in a semi-circle like half-submerged submarines to claim the after-birth and have a shot at snatching the calf, the hippo mother mounted her formidable defense.
This lady, tipping the scales at a massive 1.8 tonnes, had to wait until she was between 5 and 6 years old before she reached sexual maturity. She then had to find a sexually viable male of 7 or 8 years of age to join her in an underwater tango that would result in the conception of a new member for the family – or “pod” as it is known in Hippo lingo. Hippos don’t need snorkels for this ritual during which the submerged lady can hold her breath long enough and the male usually manages to keep his nose above water. About 8 months later the little bundle of joy arrives. Scientists prefer to call it a “calf”, but at Erindi we tend to be a little more emotional about our animals, so for us it’ s a “baby”. These little newborns usually weigh in at only 3% of the mother’s body-weight and would have tipped the scales at roughly 45kgs, making it about the size of a Labrador dog in an obesity clinic.
While hippos generally live for anything from 40 to 50 years, the babies are targeted as prey by crocodiles. But even these heavily-armored reptiles have to watch their step. Hippo mothers can chomp them in half with a single bite from their 40cm teeth!
It is fascinating to sit on the Erindi deck and watch how vigilant the hippo mother is of all predators and how quickly she sends a message to the crocodiles not to come too near her calf. At night, when she leaves the water to graze, the calf stays close to her side, suckling her rich milk and nibbling shoots of grass. Then the mother has to be especially vigilant because lions and hyenas have baby hippos high on their menu of preferred lunches and dinners. They are shrewd and opportunistic predators that just wait for a hippo calf to stray out of its mother’s protective reach, and become a feast of bushveld sushi. Of course, sometimes the adult male hippos in the pod take a dislike to a calf and launch an attack, which no calf can survive. Unpredictable fellows, these male hippos!
Our hippos know all about skin cancer and sun screen. During the dry season when water levels are low, they defy what the books say and leave the water to graze under the noon-day sun. When they do this they develop a reddish tinge which is called “blood sweat” because that is what it looks like. Actually, however, the reddish-pinky colour is the result of a chemical reaction between two acids in their system called Hipposudoric acid and Norhipposudoric acid. Combining with each other they form a barrier sun-screen that protects the hippo’s skin while it is out of the water.
The hippos obviously love Erindi as much as our guests do, even though none of the latter have demonstrated their passion by having a baby on the premises – neither in the water nor out of it. Just to make the point, however, another hippo lady gave birth to an equally small calf only a week after the first one had arrived.