CALABAR, Nigeria — For more than two years, Dadin Kowa in Nigeria’s northeastern Gombe State has had a reputation as the most frightened community in the country. Two major threats occupied the mind: the ruthless Boko Haram sect, and a rampaging hippopotamus.
While Boko Haram attacked homes and killed residents, Hippo Mai Taurin Kai (meaning “naughty hippopotamus” in the regional Hausa language) smashed fishing canoes, destroyed rice fields, killed five people and driven many from their homes in a small town near the man-made Dadin Kowa Lake.
“Sometimes when people wake up in the morning and find their farms destroyed, they don’t know who to suspect, whether it is Boko Haram or the notorious hippopotamus,” said Agafi, who visits the town frequently. “Both Boko Haram and the hippopotamus have been destroying properties and killing innocent people.”
But there was cheering news for residents on Thursday. Local authorities said Hippo Mai Taurin Kai was shot dead the night before as it came out of the lake to eat grasses. Not, perhaps, the best way to handle a rogue animal, but probably inevitable given how poorly equipped Nigerian wildlife control officials are to protect both wildlife and the communities that surround them.
Managing wild animals in the wild as humans encroach on their habitat, whether poor Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe or this big brown behemoth in Nigeria, is a hugely complicated business. Wild is wild. These are not pets. And while hippos look amusing from a distance, their massive bodies, huge teeth and uneven tempers make them some of Africa’s most dangerous herbivores.
Soldiers in the company of local hunters acted with the “approval of the governor,” according to Ismail Umar, head of forestry unit of the local government council in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
“We discovered it about two and half years ago, but unfortunately it has become very notorious and dangerous to people,” Umar said. “The community wrote to the local government council, complaining about the threat of the animal and we forwarded same to the Ministry of Environment, seeking the approval of the Governor to take action.
“We received the approval last week, and decided to go hunting for it, an exercise that took us one week before the animal was finally spotted yesterday [Wednesday] night.”
Umar said Hippo Mai Taurin Kai was the only hippopotamus that had turned violent out of about 100 around the Dadin Kowa dam.
Since 2013, attacks by the notorious naughty hippo had led to the death of five people, and forced tens of people to leave their homes, fearing renewed attacks, local fishermen said.
Suleiman Hamza, a prominent writer who has been covering terrorism stories in the region, told The Daily Beast that residents scrambled for cover when Hippo Mai Taurin Kai was on a rampage almost as if Boko Haram jihadists were attacking.
“The people of Dadin Kowa make no distinction between this animal and Boko Haram,” Hamza said. “Like they do when Boko Haram militants attack, they just simply run for their dear lives at the sight of the animal.”
The huge hippo was killed at about 10:30 p.m. local time, but the hunters waited until Thursday morning before butchering the animal and sharing its meat.
State government officials, who gave permission for the hunters to hunt down the hippopotamus, said killing the animal was a last resort.
“We have been protecting them but the particular one that was killed was notorious,” Adamu Pukuma, administrative head of the Gombe State Ministry of Environment and Forest Resources told NAN.
Since Dadin Kowa dam was built in 1984 to provide irrigation and electricity for some parts of the northeast, there were few reports of hippos crossing to the lower side of the dam until Hippo Mai Taurin Kai began his infamous depredations.
“As the human communities around these dams or sanctuaries grow, the conflicts are more frequent,” said Obi Robert, an aquaculturist, adding that “hippopotamuses also are known to become highly temperamental when they grow older.”
“Rather than kill hippopotamuses when they become violent, the best thing to do is to dart them [with tranquilizers] and take them to a special place. But Nigeria lacks the machinery to do so.”
Francis Effiom, a marine biologist, says the common hippopotami which occur across much of Africa are not endangered, and that people have every right to kill them to protect themselves when they aren’t in reserves or national parks, but that a lot needs to be done to keep both humans and wildlife safe.
“The common hippopotamuses are very deadly and are not endangered species, but they are a threatened animal,” he said. “It is important that they are protected in a special way.”