Hippopotamuses are large, round, water-loving animals that are native to Africa. The hippo’s proportions reflect its sedentary, amphibious existence. Its plump and bulky body is set on short, stumpy legs, with each foot having four toes. Although webbed, the toes splay enough to distribute the weight evenly over each toe and therefore adequately support the hippo on land. Two hippo species are found in Africa. The large hippo, found in East Africa, occurs south of the Sahara. This social, group-living mammal is so numerous in some areas that “cropping” schemes are used to control populations that have become larger than the habitat can sustain. The other, much smaller (440 to 605 pounds) species of hippo is the pygmy hippopotamus. Limited to very restricted ranges in West Africa, it is a shy, solitary forest dweller, and now rare.
The large hippo is an aggressive animal; old scars and fresh, deep wounds are signs of daily flights that are accompanied by much bellowing, neighing and snorting. Hippos have developed some ritualized postures the huge open-mouthed “yawn” that reveals formidable teeth is one of the most aggressive. With the long, razor-sharp incisors and tusk like canines, the hippo is well-armed and dangerous. Amazingly agile for their bulk, hippos are good climbers and often traverse rather steep banks each night to graze on grass. They exit and enter the water at the same spots and graze for four to five hours each night in loop patterns, covering one or two miles, with extended forays up to five miles. Their modest appetites are due to their sedentary life, which does not require high outputs of energy. Staying underwater helps the hippopotamus not feel the weight of its hulking frame. They can weigh up to 3600 kg (8000 lb.)! Under the water, hippos tap their feet along the ground to propel themselves. Being submerged for the most part of the day also helps keep the hippo cool and protected from the sun. When they do venture out of the water for a significant amount of time, hippos secrete a red-colored substance to cool their hairless skin.
The secretion is referred to as ‘blood-sweat’ but is actually neither of those fluids. Hippos are listed by IUCN’s Red List as vulnerable due to loss of habitat. Hippopotamus habitats are infringed upon by humans, who use their grazing land for farming and also divert water for farming needs. War in the regions that hippos inhabit has also wrecked havoc on hippopotamus populations. Finally, poachers kill hippos for their ivory tusks and for sport. Females have a gestation period of eight months and have only one baby at a time, according to the San Diego Zoo. At birth, the baby, called a calf, is a whopping 50 to 110 lbs. (23 to 50 kg). For 18 months, the baby nurses while its mother is on land, or it swims underwater to suckle. When it dives, the calf closes its nose and ears to block out water. All hippos have this ability. They also have membranes that cover and protect their eyes while they are underwater. According to the IUCN, the common hippo population isn’t endangered, but it is vulnerable, because their numbers have declined by 7 to 20 percent over the past 10 years, and likely will continue to decline. The IUCN estimates that there are between 125,000 and 148,000 common hippos remaining in the wild. The primary threats to hippos are poaching (for their ivory tusks and their meat), and loss of habitat, as more water is diverted for agriculture, according to the IUCN.
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