They’re big, they’re river dwellers and adorably cute – but what else do we know about them?
The blue whale and the African elephants are the only two mammals in the world that are larger than the hippopotamus. Also known as hippo, the male measures around 3.5m long, 1.5m tall and can weigh up to 3,200 kg - equivalent to more than 3 small cars! There are only two species of hippo on the planet: the common hippopotamus and pygmy hippo. The word hippo translates as river horse in ancient Greek. In Malay, we call them badak air. Hippos are native to over 30 countries in Africa and can live up to 50 years in the wild!
The World Hippo Day is observed every 15th February to celebrate and appreciate this magnificent mammal. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the ban on the international trade of elephant ivory has caused the increasing demand for hippo teeth as affordable alternatives. This species is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN.
Hippos play a key role in maintaining our ecosystems….with their poop.
Wild hippos have unique lifestyles – they eat dozens of kilograms of fresh grass at night and spend most of their days relaxing together in rivers or lakes far away from enemies and protected from the sun. Their digestion becomes active in the water thus resulting in an enormous quantity of poop entering the water. Based on a recent study by Jonas Schoelynck, a biologist, and his colleagues from the University of Antwerp, the grass that hippos eat contains silicon which is vital for certain organisms like diatoms. These unicellular algae live in water, produce oxygen, and form the basis of the food chain in many water ecosystems. Imagine when there are no hippos left; there will be less silicon in the water and results in the collapse of the algae population with harmful consequences for the entire food web in the lake or river.
In recent years, up to 90% of hippos in Africa have extinct. Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa can survive for several decades with its silicon supply but there is going to be a problem in a long run. Diatoms that do not get enough silicon are replaced by pest algae which then post unpleasant consequences like lack of oxygen and fish deaths. Hence, the source of food for the people would also be greatly affected.
So, remember that this large friend of ours has a great role to play to ensure the survival of living things on Earth, and let us all play our part to conserve it.