A few days ago I noticed two white-backed vultures descending in the distance. When vultures descend like this, it is often because they have spotted a carcass and are looking to scavenge from it. We decided to follow up.
We drove along a series of waterholes and as we approached the last in line, we were greeted with a rather macabre scene. Two hippos lay dead inside the water.
From what we could see, the two hippos were both males and my immediate thoughts were that they had been killed in a fight. Hippo bulls are territorial and will often fight with other males to protect their patch – often to the death. Although there were signs of severe organ damage (the details of which I will spare you), we could not see any bite marks on either hippo, so a fight had to be ruled out.
It suddenly struck me that there had been a huge electrical storm the night before and that these hippos had almost certainly been killed by lightning. The dead fish also floating around the waterhole served to confirm our theory.
We returned a few hours later to get a better look. Attracted by the smell and the vultures, seven hyenas were pacing up and down the bank of the waterhole, trying to figure out how to get to the hippos. One of the hippos lay on the bank of the waterhole, and the strangest thing was that he had died with his mouth wide open. How ever he had died, it was instantaneous. As his mouth sat open, I raised my binoculars up to my glasses and I could see the whiskers on the side of his nostrils appeared to have been singed. The second bull lay upside down, with his head underneath the water and his swollen belly and feet up in the air. We couldn’t get closer to this hippo because, rather curiously, a young bull hippo approached it and began to show incredible aggression toward the dead hippo (see video below). Trying to assert his dominance, this young bull was biting ferociously at the dead hippo and the less that the dead hippo fought back, the more heightened the young hippo’s aggression became. In hippo pods at Londolozi, there is usually only one dominant bull, and usually around six or seven cows. When a new, younger hippo bull wishes to challenge the dominant bull, he has to fight for it. It could be possible that this younger bull had noticed the demise of the older dominant male and could have been trying to assert dominance over it. On the other hand, it could just have been a young hippo showing curiosity, which, amongst the confusion, may have escalated toward aggression – we cannot really be sure.
We also cannot be 100% sure that these hippos were in fact killed by lightning, as no one was there to see it happen. However, the hippo’s open mouth, singed whiskers and visible organ damage certainly offers strong support for this theory.
Apart from one case in a zoo, I could not find any other documented incidences of hippos being struck by lightning. There are several accounts for giraffe (whose height would make them the perfect lightning conductors), elephant and several species of African general game. The most documented animal deaths as a result of lightning are for hundreds of elk, killed after one single strike, and many cases of livestock, which were found dead in their pastures the day after a large electrical storm. In fact, in the United States, the incidence of people being struck by lightning is highest on the fourth of July because many more people are outside.
This begs the question, if it can happen to us, and to other animals, could it happen to a hippo? Of course. Hippos are often in the water when late afternoon thunderstorms occur out here. The water that the hippos spend all this time in acts as a channel for the electrical discharge from lightning and the current could travel through the water. Hippos generally have some part of themselves sticking about the water, making them vulnerable. In addition, hippos do not float and need to be touching the bottom of the waterhole or river, so they are also earthed, making them even more vulnerable. It may have been the case that these two hippo were the only two in the water at the time of the lightning strike and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Although this may be the case, hippos probably don’t get killed by lightning very often. This was the first time I had seen this, and after forty-five years of tracking at Londolozi, Elmon Mhlongo had never seen it either. Neither had Dave Varty, whose family have owned Londolozi for the last 91 years – a very special sighting indeed.
As bad luck as it was for the hippos, we benefitted by enjoying incredible sightings over the next few days, with crocodiles, lions and hyenas all feeding on the carcasses.
The sickly Tailed lioness would come in and feed at night, trying desperately to sustain her strength, but we doubt it will be enough to keep her alive.
One of the Birmingham males fed on the carcasses for two days, then moved off when they became too putrid, and the Tsalala Tailless female and her cub would also venture in from time to time. Interestingly enough the Birmingham male left her and her cub alone, but there’ll be more on this development in a future blog…
As you read this, the vultures that have waited their turn for almost a week have finally got their turn, and are moving in to salvage what carrion they can…