Puddles was the San Diego Zoo’s first hippopotamus; born on July 8, 1935, at the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago, he arrived here in August 1936, becoming the first hippo to be exhibited by a zoo on the West Coast. He became quite the viewing sensation.
Rube and Ruby were popular from the moment they arrived in 1940 as youngsters from the Calcutta Zoo in India. The pair produced 11 offspring during their time together, with their first calf born in 1943. Hippos have an average life span of 25 to 30 years in the wild, but Rube’s 51 years made him one of the oldest hippos in zoos. Although Ruby died in 1982 and Rube in 1988, they have been immortalized as two of the Zoo’s popular costumed characters! During their time here, hippos became one of the Zoo’s most popular attractions, seen by millions of visitors.
By 1986, the 50-year-old hippo exhibit was showing its age, and a decision was made to close it until it could be replaced with an up-to-date facility. That facility became a reality when a new hippo exhibit opened in 1995. It continues to offer millions of people a safe way to get an up-close-and-personal view of hippos. Zoo visitors can observe hippo behavior on the beach and underwater all year long, as the exhibit features 110 feet (33.5 meters) of underwater viewing behind a 2¼-inch-thick (5.7 centimeters) glass window, engineered to withstand the force of a 2-ton (1.8 tonnes) hippo moving at 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour). Thanks to the temperate San Diego weather, the water in the pool does not need to be heated or chilled.
The pool is serviced by a large water filtration system and is also kept clean by a school of tilapia, one of the several species of African fish that, in the wild, would normally be feeding on the hippos’ dead skin and food remnants.
We currently have a pair of these impressive giants. Funani, whose name means “desire” in Zulu, weighs about 3,600 pounds (1,630 kilograms). She came to San Diego from the Knoxville Zoo in 1995, where she was known as a problem hippo. But she settled in quickly and has mellowed even further with motherhood. Since her arrival, she has had four calves.
Our adult male, Otis, is a “lightweight” for an animal that can reach a weight of 4 tons (3.6 tonnes); he tips the scale at 3,900 pounds (1,770 kilograms). He was wild born in East Africa in 1976 and brought to the San Diego Zoo from the Los Angeles Zoo in January 2009 specifically to breed with Funani. The happy result was Adhama, born on January 26, 2011. The “little” guy delighted Zoo guests with his playful antics at the viewing window and has been a YouTube sensation, showing off some ballet moves. Adhama moved to the Los Angeles Zoo in June 2013. We wish him well!
Although hippos are not yet endangered, their habitat has been greatly reduced over the last 200 years. Once common to all of Africa, hippos are now abundant only in East Africa. Male hippos stake a claim to a stretch of river and all the females in it. It is his job to protect the group from intruders. An unsuspecting human boater who enters hippo territory risks an aggressive response. Female hippos, especially mothers with calves, can be equally dangerous and unpredictable. Sometime it is the hippo that invades human areas like local farmlands, devouring crops.
With the constant growth of human settlements, human and hippo territories frequently overlap, and these encounters are on the rise. Projects such as the building of dams or the diversion of water for agriculture often have disastrous impacts on natural waterways and the hippos that depend on them.
Even more devastating to hippo populations is the trade in illegal ivory. Following the 1989 ban on elephant ivory, demand for hippo ivory sharply increased. The large canines that hippos use to protect themselves are made of the same material as elephants’ tusks. In fact, they are slightly softer and easier to carve than elephant ivory, making them even more appealing. As a result, hippo numbers are rapidly decreasing. If hippos were to disappear completely, the effect on their habitat would be catastrophic. The large amount of waste hippos produce fertilizes the African ecosystem, and many species of fish eat the dung and feed on the small parasites that live on the hippos’ skin.
Elephants, cheetahs, and many other “at risk” African animals have organizations focused on their conservation, but there is no such group devoted to the future of hippos. Right now, the most promising way to protect hippos is to continue to safeguard large areas of land, as national parks offer the greatest amount of protection against poaching.