Article by: Jane Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co
The hippopotamus is one of the world’s most unusual yet well-recognized animals. However, several factors have contributed to species decline in recent decades, from habitat loss to climate change. As their population decreases, conservationists and concerned citizens are proposing protections for hippos under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Hippos on the Brink of Endangerment
Many have questioned whether the hippo deserves to be listed as threatened or endangered. There are 115,000-130,000 hippos globally — far more than what most would consider a dwindling population. However, hippo numbers decreased between 7%-20% over the last 20 years, raising the alarm about what’s coming.
Unsurprisingly, humans are the greatest threat to hippos. These animals — which mostly roam throughout eastern and southern Africa — face poaching and increasing commercial demand for their ivory and teeth.
As recently as 2019, Zambia reintroduced plans for a mass cull of 2,000 hippos, despite resounding protests from animal rights groups. Zambia’s reasons were that the Luangwa River’s water levels were insufficient for the nation’s 12,200 hippos.
The river could only accommodate 5,000 at most, and relocation was too expensive for one of the poorest countries in the world — over 61% of its citizens earn under $2.15 daily. While Zambia’s plans alone wouldn’t kill off the species, it placed increased pressure on hippos and underscored the dire need for wildlife protection.
Why are Hippo Populations Dwindling?
In March 2022, the Human Society of the United States and the Humane Society International filed a petition on behalf of several wildlife organizations to include hippo protection under the ESA. Recognizing the many causes of species decline, their primary concern is that hippos are traversing a road to extinction. Here are a few of hippopotamuses’ most significant threats.
Deforestation and habitat loss have impacted the hippos’ ability to graze. Hippos eat nearly 88 pounds of grass nightly — about 1.5% of the animal’s body weight. As humans occupy land and water sources, fewer resources are available to hippos.
One might look at a hippo and think they’re related to elephants. However, their closest relatives are actually whales — they have a common ancestor from 55 million years ago — meaning they need access to water resources.
Sadly, their search for resources and habitat has led to numerous human-wildlife conflicts. Hippos are highly aggressive and can cause significant damage to crops. Some may attack fishermen if they become scared.
An extended drought and exceedingly hot temperatures have plagued African nations for the last few years. For instance, Kenya hasn’t had rain in four consecutive seasons over two years. As a result, wildlife officials regularly report on animal deaths, including those deemed threatened or endangered.
Experts have attributed the drought to climate change. Without precipitation, dried-up rivers leave hippos with nowhere to go. Of course, all species need water to survive — and an animal weighing up to 3,200 kilograms (kg) — roughly 7,000 pounds — drinks a lot.
Climate change shows few signs of slowing down. As it continues affecting habitat and resources, we can expect a sharper decline in hippo numbers.
Poaching and Trade
Poachers pose the greatest threat to hippos, especially as commercial demand for ivory, teeth and other body parts increases. Unfortunately, the U.S. has played a key role in a highly-unregulated yet legal trade since hippos aren’t yet protected under the ESA.
According to the Human Society’s petition, the U.S. imported at least 9,000 hippo teeth, 700 pieces of skin and 4,400 leather items from 2009 to 2018. Scientists estimate that a whopping 3,081 hippos were killed for trade during this time.
The only way to stop poaching and the animal trade is by issuing global protections and regulations. The ESA would make U.S. imports of hippo goods illegal and hold bad players accountable for future deaths.
ESA Protections Can Save the Hippopotamus
Climate change, poaching and habitat encroachment will continue to pose a significant issue for hippos. Unless something changes, we can expect to see further population declines in the coming decades. Designating hippos as threatened or endangered under the ESA would give these animals a fighting chance for long-term survival.