Hippo poaching has recently intensified within some of Uganda’s 10 national parks, according to new evidence. Ranger reports and a new aerial survey show hippo numbers have dropped, and the bodies are often missing—telltale signs of poaching. The findings raise new concerns for the safety of the vulnerable animals.
The gregarious, massive herbivores are known to congregate in the parks, and poachers appear to be increasingly targeting the animals for their teeth—which are carved and sold internationally as hippo ivory—as well as for local meat consumption.
A new aerial survey, which hasn’t yet been publicly released, indicates hippopotamus numbers in the country’s national parks have declined, says Charles Tumwesigye, deputy director of field operations at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). “We know there’s a reduction in hippos, especially in Murchison Falls National Park,” which is home to close to 3,000 of Uganda’s 10,000 estimated hippos, he says.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified hippos as vulnerable in 2016, stating the animal’s chief threats were habitat loss and degradation alongside unregulated and illegal hunting. The sixteen-foot-long animals can also be slow to recover from population losses, partly because females typically have just one offspring every other year.
Uganda has experienced a “perfect storm for organized crime to pick up people who are desperate” says Michael Keigwin, founder of the nonprofit Uganda Conservation Foundation, which supports UWA’s rangers. A drought in the country, subsequent flooding, and earlier pandemic lockdowns have all strained local farming economies and other businesses, driving more people to poach, he says. (Read more: Pandemic-induced poaching surges in Uganda.)
The country banned commercial hippo teeth exports in 2014, but there’s still a large market for the carvings internationally, with the teeth sourced legally and illegally from various countries.
Keigwin says he believes the high-value teeth are poachers’ main target in Uganda, though they often harvest the meat as well. As evidence, he points to the carnage his teams have seen in the national parks: Poachers often “leave the bones and the head and that’s it,” he says. “Everything else is gone.” Sometimes, he adds, the poachers take the whole body and cut it up later, which may make tracking the losses even harder.
In the past couple years, Keigwin says, his teams have consistently discovered stripped down remains, particularly at Murchison Falls National Park and at Queen Elizabeth National Park, another stronghold for the species. As many as 60 percent of the hippos at Murchison have been poached during the pandemic, he estimates.
But Tumwesigye, who is a National Geographic Explorer, says the number of deaths is still being determined. “We can’t confirm that yet until we have the results of the recent survey,” which are expected in late August after analysis of the aerial work is complete, he says.
The hippo ivory is routinely carved into jewelry and figurines marketed primarily in Asia, but also in Europe and North America.
Since the bodies are often gone, it remains unclear if the poachers are hunting hippos primarily for their meat, teeth, or both, Tumwesigye says. “We are thinking it might not be entirely hippo teeth trade, but also bushmeat, because when it’s bushmeat they take the carcasses,” he says, adding that he believes they’ve likely lost more hippos to the bushmeat trade overall.
Seizures of hippo teeth have spiked this year in Uganda, according to Focused Conservation, a global nonprofit that investigates wildlife crime alongside UWA’s Wildlife Crime Unit. The conservation group issued an alert last month stating that between January and June 2023, Ugandan authorities seized 598 hippo teeth. Yet in all of 2022, according to the group’s figures, authorities only seized 32 teeth.
Focused Conservation says it put the hippo data together on behalf of United for Wildlife, a group founded by the Royal Foundation and Prince William that aims to end the illegal wildlife trade. In the report, Focused Conservation also stated that government officials have been directly implicated in illegal wildlife trade in Uganda, and that well-connected traffickers are sometimes able to procure permits to export hippo teeth despite the 2014 ban.
Investigations remain ongoing. Just because a seizure is recent doesn’t necessarily mean the teeth are from freshly killed hippos, says Tumwesigye. “It’s difficult to connect it.”
To kill a massive animal like a hippopotamus, poachers must be extremely skilled and efficient. Keigwin says that poachers in Uganda are both—often completing this arduous task and dragging off the carcass in under 30 minutes.
At night, poachers take unlicensed fishing boats into areas of Uganda’s national parks, harpoon one of the multi-ton animals, butcher it, and drag it away, he says.
When hippos emerge from the water to feed, poachers also employ other tools, including large snares, pits where hippos may fall onto spikes, and triggers that can drop a weighted spear down from above into the animals’ shoulder blades, Keigwin says. With any of these approaches, he adds, groups of poachers may also then need to spear the injured animals to kill them.
“The main thing we need to do is improve our strategies for patrols within protected areas,” says Tumwesigye. “Hippos stay in specific areas which are known, so once we intensify our patrols, we should be able to combat the poaching.”
“We’ve done our best and UWA has done an extraordinary amount—everything they could—but they’ve been vastly understaffed and under-resourced,” says Keigwin, who added that during the pandemic his group fed rangers, provided fuel for cars, veterinary drugs for animal rescues and much more.
Though hippos are a large tourism draw in Uganda, the animals also make for dangerous neighbors. Each year, hippos kill an estimated 500 people across Africa, making them one of the world’s deadliest mammals. (Learn more about human-hippo conflict.)
The animals require vast areas of fresh water with spots shallow enough to stand—hippos can’t actually swim—but they also must be able to completely submerge themselves to keep cool and prevent their skin from cracking. Hippos are also very territorial, which puts the animal in direct conflict with humans that may encroach into their habitat or get too close to their young.
“There is a pressing need for more conservation coordination within and among regions where hippos are found—west, east, and south Africa—to create meaningful and coordinated actions that protect both hippo populations and hippo habitat,” says conservation ecologist Rebecca Lewison at San Diego State University, who co-authored the IUCN evaluation for the species.
In Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, tensions around hippos have grown as farming and aquaculture has expanded into the animal’s traditional habitat, leading to the deaths of both hippos and humans. The flooding in Uganda also exacerbated these interactions as hippos’ territories shifted closer to populated areas.
A global trade in hippo parts
Hippos are native to 38 sub-Saharan countries in Africa with an overall estimated population of between 115,000 and 130,000 wild hippos, according to the IUCN’s 2016 assessment. Yet previous overestimates of hippo numbers have made tracking the species’ health and management difficult, according to the group.
Some reports suggest that the global hippo ivory trade has remained stable or declined in recent years, but global tracking of this trade remains flawed and inconsistent, proponents argued, which may mask threats against the animals. (Read about the fight against the underground trade in hippo teeth.)
Recent analysis from Traffic, a global nonprofit that focuses on the wildlife trade, noted that between 2009 and 2018, hippo-exporting countries reported trading about 55,000 pounds and 40,000 specimens of hippo ivory while importing countries and territories reported receiving about 80,000 pounds and 23,000 specimens. How to explain the discrepancies remains unclear. Uganda, Traffic said, was responsible for 40 percent of the ivory exports during that period.
Such disparities are “concerning and point to a larger issue of the viability of hippo populations in the future,” says Lewison.
“Hippos are bloody important for the ecosystem, not just for their grazing but the algae that grows on their poop is incredibly important for fisheries,” says Keigwin. “Tourism requires hippos, too,” he says, “and to lose them to this extent is extremely damaging.”