Protective parents scary but fascinating in the wild.

Potawatomi Zoo

Stories from

March 1, 2005

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — The engine on our powerboat stalled as we made our way through the overgrown weeds of the Okavango Delta, in the southern African country of Botswana.

I knew this trip would be an adventure, but when I noticed the irritated pod of hippopotamus looking at us, I became more than a little concerned.

As a development director for the Potawatomi Zoological Society, I came here to do research for an upcoming African exhibit. With me was a small entourage of zoo volunteers and a WSBT-TV photographer.

As we sat helpless in our boat, our guide, Ollie, did his best to get it moving again.

We heard a splash and saw a fountain of bubbles erupt toward the water’s surface. A v-shaped wave headed for us as a hippo slipped underneath the boat.

Forget the expensive camera equipment and any other amenities from home we might lose; if the boat tipped over, I knew we were goners.

I felt as if I were living a scene from the movie “Jaws.” In this version, there was no shark. The role of the villain was being played by a 6,000-pound hippopotamus.

Although hippos are strict vegetarians, they kill more people in Africa each year than any other animal. Hippos have the strength to break canoes in half and tip over conventional powerboats (such as ours).

As time stood still, three hippos surrounded the boat and kept popping up on various sides of it.

One emerged close to the back of the boat, opened its mouth and voiced its displeasure with an enormous “GRUNT.”

Ollie gunned the engine again, and this time it started. We were out of there. Whew!

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about hippos. Yes, they can be aggressive, but we were in their territory.

An adventure afloat

The boat ride through the Okavango Delta was only supposed to take about five hours; it took 11. The exhausting mission delivered us to Gadikwee Island, home to a large colony of birds.

As we set out in the morning, we soon realized that reaching the island would not be an easy task. Because of recent rains, the channels were overgrown and thick with weeds. We could travel at top speed for only a few minutes before weeds would entangle the boat’s engine.

Navigating the maze of overgrown channels was Ollie’s job. It was his back yard, but the landscape reminded me of the Florida Everglades with shallow channels, tall grasses, and crocodiles (taking the place of Florida’s alligators).

The water of the delta was brown but clear, so clear that you could see leaf litter, fish, branches and the occasional crocodile resting on the channel bottoms.

You had to constantly dodge the intrusive native plants, which harbored ants and other biting insects. The branches would smack you in the face if you weren’t careful.

As we approached the island, the heat was sweltering, and our boat’s engine was nearly exhausted.

A prehistoric sight

Gadikwee Island is occupied by hundreds of tall birds called marabou storks.

These storks have a wingspan of 10 feet, the third-largest wingspan of any bird in the world. Tree branches would sway from the enormous wing power, as groups of storks would flap their wings and take off or land.

The screaming vocalizations combined with their ungainly bald appearance made me think I was in the presence of flying dinosaurs.

The marabou’s baldness serves a purpose in the wild. A portion of the stork’s diet is carrion. If the stork had feathers on its head, blood and bacteria would get caught in it while the bird feasted on a carcass.

The baldness enables the bird to stick its head inside a dead animal and gorge itself without worry. All the nasty material will simply dry up and fall off the head.

We saw dozens of marabou chicks, which stood 3 to 4 feet tall at only a few months old. Adults reach about 5 feet tall.

We plan to add the marabou stork to the zoo’s collection as part of the Africa exhibit. These large birds would be displayed in an open setting alongside other African animals, including giraffes.

As we chugged away from the prehistoric scene of gigantic birds sweeping the skies, I knew that my sunburned and bug-bitten body had just witnessed an extraordinary sight.

More hippos

On the way back to camp, we encountered more hippos. They are all over the Okavango Delta. If you don’t see them, you can see where they have been — just look for the trampled vegetation or dung piles.

It surprised me that when hippos see you, they immediately make their presence known by snorting, honking and opening up their mouths to show off their 20-inch-long canines. They were telling us, “I’m here and do not even think about getting any closer or else!”

On our way back to camp, we came upon a mother and her youngster blocking the channel. We had to wait for her to move as she had no intention of letting us anywhere near her calf.

Mother hippos are some of the best parents in the animal kingdom. Their no-fear attitude speaks volumes about their dedication when it comes to protecting their young.

We had a little fun with the hippos. When we ran across a group of them at a water hole clearing, I did my hippo call (it’s one of my secret talents). You make a honking sound in your deepest voice and repeat it four times with the last honk being longer.

As I called to them, the hippos twitched their ears and looked at me.

Then I asked Ollie to call them. He did his impression, and they twitched their ears and bellowed back. I hope there wasn’t a lonely female hippo in that group. She might look up old Ollie sometime.

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