A Hippo in…Australia?

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.

The chances of seeing one in the wild are incredibly remote (unless you’re Conservancy lead scientist Sanjayan, who saw one in 2004 and took the first photo of a wild one. Ever.)

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.

Herds of African and Asian antelopes roam freely in Texas and New Mexico. Pythons gobble up small gators in Florida. Australian eucalyptus (sans koalas, for now) sprout across California.

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.)

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  1. Any non-native is non native, but not all are invasive. In a semi-static world, cleaving to an ideal of keeping all species within their recent historic boundaries would make some sense–if we don’t have many non-natives, we have no risk of non-native invasives. But in a changing world, a more intelligent series of questions would be, “How good is this for the rare, introduced species? How bad is it for the ecosystem where it’s been introduced? Is there a balance that’s good for the one, and non-negative for the other, and how many person-hours would it take to monitor, tweak, and ensure that balance?”

    As someone who’s battled knotweed, and planted butterflybush only to see it first spread, then make the state’s invasive list, I’m ruefully aware that it’s tough to predict which introduced species will be invasive, and tougher to root them out again.) However, some non-native and cultivated plants are welcome (I’m thinking of the gnarled, ancient apple trees that we sometimes find, making us wonder if they hark back to Johhny Appleseed, who was very active in western PA). Not every intriduced exotic (wheat, cotton, etc) is considered invasive, and not every exotic invasive is considered serious enough to “weed out” (dandelions).

    Was the pygmy hippo causing destruction on a par with a feral pig? Would it necessarily be a net minus for the Australian ecosystem if there were, say, a small breeding colony of pygmy hippos in the wild, there? Was the loner enjoying the wets, then surviving the dry in brackish waters, or was it fouling rare billabongs? Similarly, are the nilgai and blackbuck in Texas ecologically destructive invasives….or merely successful exotics? The antelope have been locally free ranging for 50-60 years, so it should be possible to assess their effects.

    Say antelopes are causing a loss of pronghorn range, or if they crop too close as they graze, or overbrowse native plants and encourage the growth of non-native monoculture plants. OK, then we should get upset–at about the same, sober, constrained level that we get upset at, say, livestock ranching, which can also displace native animals & plants, and encourage the growth of non-native monoculture plants. However, if there’s no real evidence that a given introduced exotic is doing either of those things– if they are not terribly destructive to native ecosystems–maybe we should get some perspective, and leave them be, or even, in some cases, encourage the spread, if it rescues an endangered species. We can denigrate wildlife shuttling, but we would not have, say, Père David’s Deer, if it were not for Père David.

    Intentional, thoughtful, well-monitored transplantation is a potentially powerful way to save both plants and animals in an era of climate change. In any case, it’s hard to think of a faster-spreading, more destructive invasive exotic than you and I, and humanity seems quite eager to continue transplanting itself. At some point, we may have to face the idea that it might be more appropriate to settle for a semi-historic ecosystem, so long as it is deep, diverse, and stably maintains a large number of native plants and animals that come from the local bioregion, instead of focusing on a particular high-profile interloper.

    We might want to turn more attention to, say, the garden plant industry which has been so quick to introduce and spread “exotic easy-care plants” with a high tendency to go invasive, and has continued to sell plants that are on states “10 most hated invasives” lists. It’s not as sexy as stray hippos, but it’s most certainly destructive.

  2. You make a number of valid observations regarding invasive species. In your first paragraph you pose a set of intelligent questions, but who can really intelligently answer them? Hypothethetical individuals somehow empowered to determine whether a new species can be introduced into a new locale may be quite conscientious with the best of intentions. They still may not get it right, and it may be years before a consensus develops that they didn’t get it right. By then it is likely to be too late to remedy or at least prohibitedly expensive. In a perfect world I feel that we should not mess with Mother Nature. She was doing a pretty good job until we came along.

    Alas, in a far from perfect world, perhaps we should embrace most of your thinking on this matter.

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