A 1-year-old was killed and 23 people were reported missing after a hippopotamus charged and capsized a canoe in southern Malawi, police said.
Thirty-seven people were traveling across the Shire River to neighboring Mozambique when the animal hit their boat on Monday, according to the Associated Press. A spokeswoman for the Nsanje District police, Agnes Zalakoma, told the AP that the missing people were feared dead because more than 24 hours had passed.
The incident has brought renewed attention to the risks of human-hippo encounters. While hippos are often vegetarian and can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh as much as four tons. They have been known to attack people across their habitat in sub-Saharan Africa, from fishermen in Senegal and a toddler in Uganda, to locals and tourists in Kenya.
They have even caused trouble as far away as Colombia, after drug kingpin Pablo Escobar smuggled four of the animals into his country estate in the 1980s — leaving the nation’s authorities struggling to control the world’s largest invasive species.
Malawi’s minister of water and sanitation, Abida Mia, traveled to the area of the capsized canoe on Tuesday. Mia said that locals told her that hippos often cause problems and that they want authorities to relocate some of the animals, according to the AP.
So why might a hippo charge at a boat — and what can you do to stay safe if you’re within a hippo’s territory?
Hannah Lacy, a PhD student at the University of Leeds who is studying the animal’s spatial ecology, said that male hippos are “extremely territorial in water” and that “boats may provoke hippos to attack as they will be considered a threat.”
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If you’re in a hippo’s territory, the advice is to never come between the animal and water, because hippos view deep water as a place of refuge and don’t like seeing something between them and safety.
It’s also worth making plenty of noise if traveling by boat, such as by knocking the oars or paddles against the side of the vessel, to give the hippo enough time to move out of the way. Mother hippos will be particularly protective of their calves.
There are simple measures that people sharing an environment with hippos can take, such as placing barriers or trenches around crops or leaving designated areas for the animals’ use, Traill said, but he warned that conflict between humans and hippos “will not end soon.”
“Unfortunately, many people in countries like Malawi are poor and depend on the food they grow and fish they catch. Often the best soils for crops, or fishing opportunities, also happen to be where hippos live.”