The hippo — really? That’s the common response when tour guides in Africa tantalize travelers with this question: “What’s the most dangerous animal on the continent?” Lion? Rhino? Elephant? No, no, no. Eventually, the tour guide delivers the answer with a twinkle in their eye: the hippo, yes, that water-loving, one-tonne mammalian oddity. Despite their hefty and somnolent appearance, hippos are fast and aggressive — a dangerous mix — and may kill several hundred people a year (of course the most dangerous animal in Africa is not really the hippo at all, it’s the mosquito — but no one likes a know-it-all).
Despite being one of the most unusual animals on the planet — their closest relatives are whales and dolphins — hippos don’t get a lot of love. They tend to be overshadowed by the continent’s other remarkable mega-mammals. Who can compete with elephants and giraffe and lion? Perhaps, that’s why it’s not exactly surprising that the announcement of a hippo cull in Zambiadidn’t exactly make global news.
But the proposal of a cull of hippos — conducted by trophy hunters — on the Luangwa River in Zambia raises a number of conservation questions, from population dynamics, to whether or not trophy hunting is a good conservation strategy in such cases, and even to something called shifting baselines syndrome.
In 2016, Zambia proposed a large cull of its hippo population, but soon rolled back the idea after backlash by environmental and animal rights groups. Now, the idea is back: Zambia has proposed a cull of 250 hippos annually for the foreseeable future. The government says there are simply too many hippos and fears an outbreak of anthrax that could spread to other animals.