I just received my contributor copies in the mail of Wildlife Conservation Magazine. I have two stories and four photographs in the November 2008 issue. One on the hippos of Ayorou, majestic and dangerous creatures who attract tourists to Niger, West Africa, but often upset villagers, especially fishermen. The other is a short news piece on the status of West Africa’s last remaining wild giraffes.
Wild Places: The Hippos of Ayorou
By Jennifer Margulis
Two cormorants hunch their slate gray shoulders on a rock in midstream while a brilliant white heron takes flight. A deep river flows through this land but the banks and everything beyond are still parched. The river is jagged and split by the rocky terrain which neither accepts its passing nor allows it to meander.
Here is one of the loveliest stretches of the Niger River, and on it is the town of Ayorou, situated 180 kilometers northwest of the capital city of Niger, a landlocked mostly desert country in the heart of West Africa.
Ayorou has been an important market town for over a millennium—near as it is to the meeting place of three countries: Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The Niger is the most eccentric of rivers, starting near the seashore in the Ivory Coast and heading northeast away from the ocean into the heart of the Sahara Desert where it curves in a giant question mark before coming back to the Atlantic in Nigeria.
On Sundays the river, Ayorou, and the small towns surrounding it come alive with people carting their wares by land or by water to sell or trade. Pirogues weighted with everything from livestock and pumpkins to gasoline and cheap plastic combs from China travel days, both upstream and downstream, to get here.
If Ayorou’s Sunday market draws hundreds of West African visitors a week, there is something else that is bringing mostly Western tourists to town. Since 2004 Niger’s government has been successfully protecting its fauna from poachers, hunters, and other human threats; and, according to Mamidou Issaka, Ayorou’s chief forest ranger, there are more than 150 hippos that snort, bellow, forage, and breed in the waters around Ayorou.
These hippos of Ayorou, Hippopotamus amphibius, are majestic, solid creatures who protrude, like dark gray boulders, mostly submerged in the murky water on a hot day when temperatures in this region of Africa can easily soar to 130 degrees. Only the upper surface of their heads are above water: black beady eyes encircled by pink and absurdly small round ears jut above their blocky snouts as they loll, hardly moving, in the Niger River.
From time to time they lift their heads and open their enormous teeth, a warning to would-be intruders. Their far-reaching basso profundo guffaws startle tourists. “They’re laughing at us!” cries one youngster, straining her eyes to see the hippos from the safe distance of a pirogue upstream.
The hippo’s gaze belies any humor, though. These wild hippos peer steadily over the surface at you when you’re on the water with them. Their unflinching stare seems idle, as if you weren’t worth bestirring themselves over, and yet hostile, perfectly willing to bite you in half if you dare to bother them.
The hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa. Territorial and aggressive by nature, they have killed or maimed several Nigeriens who have ventured too close in the past few years.
Male hippos can weigh up to 7,055 lbs (3,200 kg) but are buoyant and walk or even run through the water, bouncing to the surface like a man walking on the moon. Herbivores and nocturnal eaters, they clamber out of the water after dark on their short heavy legs to forage on the tasty grasses that grow on the small, uninhabited islands along the Niger River.
Christian Noirard, a French graduate student in zoology at the Université de Lyon who has been studying the hippos for six years and who started a campground that makes viewing them easier for ecotourists, has found a surprising result in his research: despite their enormous size and their large calorie needs, the hippos of Ayorou are actually selective eaters, choosing between only 6-8 different plant types.
Noirard argues the hippos of Ayorou are an integral part of the ecosystem in this region. His goal is to establish a successful non-profit ecotourism campground to help the local population thanks to the hippos. But many local fishermen don’t mince words about their dislike of the hippos. On a hot day in May, Alassane Taba sits with his legs straight out in front of him on one of the small islands in the middle of the Niger River with several other fishermen. Repairing his nets with the help of two sons, Alassane Taba explains why the fishermen don’t like the hippos: “They bother us,” he says speaking Zarma through an interpreter who translates into French, “They damage the fields and destroy the manioc and sweet potatoes.” Alassane Taba speaks quietly, his head bent on his work. “Maybe they do bring some tourism to the area but we, the fishermen, see no benefit in having hippos here.”
Wearing a bright red T-shirt with blue sleeves and smoking a cigarette, Salou Adamou agrees, “The hippos make it hard for us to cross the river safely and it’s too dangerous to fish at night because of them,” he complains. “They think they own the river. Even if someone is sick and we need to get to the other bank, we can’t.” There are murmurs of agreement from half a dozen others.
But one older fisherman with a short white beard on just his lower chin and a wide straw sunhat on his head admits there is one benefit to having hippos in the area: “You know, the hippos attract fish. Where the hippos have been we are sure to find catch. The fish eat their excrement,” says Seyni Nouhou. At the end of the day, the fishermen paddle their pirogues to spots where the hippos have lounged, usually rewarded by capitaine, trout, carp, catfish, pike, and even eel on their lines.
Noirard, whose daily task involves collecting hippo dung to analyze its composition, emphasizes this important function the hippos play in providing food for the fish and is trying to convince the fishermen that without the hippos there would be even fewer fish in waters of the Niger River. He also points out the hippos are “landscape architects,” creating mini wetlands in their forays down the river that serve as breeding grounds for insects and amphibians.
“O bagna! Bagna!” Zarma village children cry when they spy hippos from the banks. “Bagna” is the Zarma word for hippo, and there are dozens of stories about hippos in the folklore of the region. Zarma people believe the hippos are protected by an invisible river-spirit, a woman they call the Mistress of the Waters, named Harakoy Diko. The people’s lives hug the river and are bounded by it. When hippos hurt humans or trample fields it is because Harakoy is angry and must be placated with secret rituals and dance. Harakoy’s hippo is an intrinsic part of this bustling world where the sun sparkles off the water and the river creates a green riparian zone in the midst of a desert land.
Time and place to see the hippos of Ayorou
The best time to visit Ayorou to see the hippos is when the water in the Niger River is low and the sun is not unbearably hot – in November or December. The sprawling riverside hotel in Ayorou, l’Hôtel Amenokal (for reservations, call: 011-227-96-15-47-85) has been undergoing renovations for several years. Although it was still open during this time, it has not been a comfortable place to stay and travelers in the past reported that the rooms were so hot they slept under mosquito netting on the rooftop. The renovations are complete and the hotel is now clean and updated, but electricity is not guaranteed and frequent power outages make the rooftop a spot of choice on a hot night. Air conditioned double rooms are available, and single rooms with no climate control. Outside the hotel are riverfront tables and chairs and lots of shade trees, which make this a pleasant place to enjoy a cold drink while looking out onto the river.
A portion of the profits from the campground, accessible only by pirogue, is returned to the community. For 12,000 F/CFA per person ($29.00), you get lodging in a tent on traditional wooden Hausa beds with mattresses and a mosquito net (bring your own bedding), meals and drinks are also included. The campground is usually open from October to March (though when there is demand it will stay open several months longer).
ETA: Since this article was written, Wildlife Conservation Magazine stopped circulation.
Published: October 14, 2008
Last update: January 23, 2020