Subscribe by RSS

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Douglas the Hippo

You'd think enough had recently gone wrong in my life to satisfy the most vengeful of Old Testament gods. 

But no sooner have I caught up with all the back admin, whose omission had plunged me into a cold bath of chaos, than another thunderbolt strikes.

Douglas has changed sex again.

Hang on a minute I've lost you, haven't I? Let me step back a pace and see if I can get a little logic and sound story sequencing into this one.

A few months ago, Glasgow Science Festival kindly helped me adopt a baby hippo, which had been found orphaned last February, at just two weeks old

It's a process that is easier and carries less responsibility than you'd imagineYou don't actually have to raise the little guy, teach him the difference between right and wrong and get him into a good university. 

All you do is send £5 to £65 a month to help with his care, protection and, if all goes well, reintroduction to the wild. In return you get photos, an adoption certificate and regular updates on the progress of young Douglas - for that was his name - at the Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust, on the banks of the Luangwa River in eastern Zambia.

But a recent update came as shock to me and his other adoptive parents. They had chosen the wrong name for the little hippo, they told us. Henceforth he was a she and her name, god help us, was Douglina.

Around this point I began to lose confidence in the assorted vets and conservation people in Douglina's entourage, having previously assumed they knew what they were doing with young hippos. If they couldn't even tell the boys from the girls, how expert were they?

So I did a little research and found a good reason for their failure. Male and female hippos are hard to tell apart, even for experts, and especially when they're just little shavers.

As you know there are lots of lies, damn lies and statistics out there on the internet. An oft-repeated claim about hippos is that they're the most aggressive and dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for more human deaths than lions, leopards and other big cats combined. It's an assertion that raises plenty of questions in my mind. 

What are the relative numbers of these different groups, how close do they all live to humans and, critically, what were the humans doing to provoke the attacks?

Most often, it seems, the attacker is a mature bull hippo or a mother, because the bulls are aggressive in the mating season while the females are "quite protective of their young calves."

Show me any male and female mammals who aren't.

Another blindly-repeated claim is that hippos are not sexually dimorphic, which means males and females are identical in all observable respects. It's not true. The behaviour of male and female hippos is quite different, and so too are some aspects of their size and structure.

Mature male hippos tend to be larger and heavier and have longer teeth than females. They also have undescended testicles, no scrotum, and penises they keep in their pants till the time is right.

All of which brings us back to Douglas or Douglina, as they've been encouraging us to call the poor little bugger. 

The latest news, believe it or not, is that the experts now admit they've got it wrong again.

Douglina has been having an "amorous encounter with a water barrel", and they have the photographs.

During this episode it became evident to onlookers, they tell us with restraint, "that boy bits were involved." So Douglina is Douglas again and will remain so, they insist, for all time

I have my doubts. Watch this space. 

I will keep you posted.


  1. I'm inclined to think that the animal responsible for most human deaths in Africa has fewer than four legs.