Recently, hunters shot a hippo in the wilds of Australia’s Northern Territory.
Read that again.
A hippo. In Australia.
Not a kangaroo, a platypus, a wombat or a dingo. No: This was one of Africa’s most iconic animals.
And while this incident may just be a sad but isolated example of game preserves gone awry, I think it also provides a symbol for the strange new world conservationists are facing.
This wasn’t just any hippo, but a pygmy hippo, an incredibly rare and elusive large mammal.
Pygmy hippos, ¼ the size of the common hippopotamus, live deep in the forests of West Africa. They’re nocturnal, shy and live in low population densities—making them extremely difficult to spot and study.
They’re also in trouble. Their habitat happens to overlap some places with violent and chaotic recent histories, like Sierra Leone and Liberia.
And now one turns up on another continent, bagged by Aussie hunters who thought it a feral pig.
The hippo likely escaped from a fenced wildlife preserve nearby. If that’s the case, it’s roamed Australia for several years, as the preserve closed in 2006.
There are lessons here on the realities of keeping large, non-native animals in fenced areas, as Feral Thoughts blogger Tony Peacock points out.
Good fences may make good neighbors, but they’re generally poor at ensuring wild animals don’t escape.
And you may ponder too why people continue to think that bringing new animals into a country is such a cool idea. It’s a story that so often ends badly, yet people still move around carp and pythons and other invasive species.
Just this month, my state of Idaho became the latest to confirm the presence of destructive, non-native feral hogs — intentionally introduced because someone thought free-roaming pigs would make great game animals.
Mostly, though, I see the Australian pygmy hippo as symbolic of the strange new world we inhabit — a world where what we thought we knew about wild animals and where they live is no longer true.
This elicits predictable consternation among conservationists. We’re supposed to believe that such non-native plants and animals are noxious, nasty, even evil.
These are anthropomorphic judgments, of course. The plants and animals are not malevolent; they’re just surviving and adapting — a story as old as evolution.
With climate change, altered habitats, global travel and a global economy, we can expect more strange new creatures where they’ve never been before.
No, you likely won’t have a herd of pygmy hippos in your backyard anytime soon. But feral hogs? Parrots and pythons?
Without better means to keep non-native species from spreading, it’s hard to know what plants and animals might show up — and what might stick around.
(Image: Pygmy hippos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)