BY PETER HOLLEY, WASHINGTON POST
Each day, when Ali Fall heads to work, he knows he’s tempting death.
The 25-year-old is not a soldier or a police officer battling urban crime, but a simple fisherman – one who spends his days hauling nets in the the waters of Gambia river in eastern Senegal, according to Agence France Presse.
It might be a placid existence, were it not for an aggressive creature lurking at the water’s edge.
That animal, AFP reports, is the reason Fall conducted his interview from a hospital bed, where he was wrapped in bloodied bandages.
He is lucky to be alive.
“I came with another fisherman to pick up the nets I had left when the hippopotamus upended our boat,” Fall told AFP. “My friend got away, but it bit into my left leg, then my right.”
“It’s the second time I’ve been attacked, after their first attempt in 2014,” he added. “I’ve cheated death twice.”
Many others from his village of Gouloumbou have not, as the waters “have often run red with the blood of his peers,” according to AFP.
In the last decade, hippos – the most dangerous mammal in Africa, according to National Geographic – have mauled 25 fishermen to death and injured many more in Gouloumbou, elders told AFP.
“Hippopotamus” is Greek for “river horse.” Unlike horses, whose instinct is to flee from danger, hippos are unpredictable, territorial and often tempestuous, making them fearsome creatures in spite of their doughy, almost cartoonish appearance.
Videos showing the animals fearlessly brutalizing crocodiles are commonly posted on YouTube.
Despite that appearance, they are deceptively fast, especially in water, where they become graceful swimmers. A viral YouTube video shows a hippo chasing tourists on a motorboat and briefly keeping pace.
The massive herbivores are also surprisingly swift on land, clocking in at an estimated 18 to 30 mph, according to the Nature Conservancy.
“Hippo pods are led by dominant males, which can weigh 6,000 pounds or more,” according to a Smithsonian magazine article from 2006. “Females and most other males weigh between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds, and all live about 40 years.”
“Though they occasionally spar with crocodiles, a growing number of skirmishes are with humans,” the magazine notes. “Hippos have trampled or gored people who strayed too near, dragged them into lakes, tipped over their boats and bitten off their heads.”
Reports of marauding hippos surface in countries across Africa and Asia every few years. The exact number of people killed and injured each year by hippos is not known.
But regarding one notable period of destruction 16 years ago, AFP reported that rampaging herds of hippos were “spreading terror” among farmers and fishermen along the river Niger, in the west African country of the same name. Local authorities told the wire service in 2000 that the animals were attacking boatmen and were responsible for smashing or sinking about a dozen vessels.
The hippos were also attacking cattle grazing near the riverbank; locals, it seemed, were defenceless.
“Teams armed with machetes, clubs and burning torches have been set up to protect the rice fields, but a local trader said the strategy was ineffective because the villagers are unable to resist the charges of the ravenous animals,” AFP reported at the time.
More recently, a 2014 hippo attack in the same country left 12 children and an adult dead, according to AFP. The hippo flipped a boat transporting the group across a river en route to school, though the AFP report did not clarify whether the students drowned or were mauled, either by a single hippo or by a pod.
“Ultimately it was 12 students, including seven girls and five boys, who died after the attack,” Minister of Secondary Education Aichatou Oumani told AFP at the time.
In Gouloumbou, village chief Abdoulaye Barro Watt has described a terrifying and treacherous situation. He told AFP that locals like Fall continue to endure the wrath of violent hippos because the river is their only source of income.
“These men are struggling to survive due to these attacks,” he said. “I have written so many letters to the authorities, even the fisheries minister, to make them aware of the problem.”
Even so, Gouloumbou villagers told AFP, venturing into the waters is a last resort, in part because their ethnic group’s traditional fishing boat – a wooden skiff known as a “pirogue” – provides little protection from an angry hippo.
Moussa Bocar Gueye said he hasn’t been fishing in three weeks.
“They are evil monsters who attack us night and day,” he told AFP. “Because of them, we haven’t been fishing. There aren’t any more fish at the market.”
But killing hippos is not an option, AFP reports, because they’re a protected species in Senegal.
Fishermen aren’t the only ones vulnerable to attack, according to AFP.
Villagers rely on the tributary to wash their clothes and bathe, but they do so warily.
“I’m scared they’ll attack,” Aminata Sy, who does laundry in the river, told AFP. “That’s why I always stay facing the river.”
“We don’t have a well or any taps,” she added.
There is some hope, however.
Djibril Signate, Senegal’s national director of inland fishing, told the news service that the government plans to provide fishermen with 20 metal pirogues – with motors – to provide more safety during an attack.
“We are installing a fish farming enclosure in Gouloumbou,” Signate said. “The ministry has also distributed nets, hooks and lifejackets so they can fish in pools that are chock full (of fish).”
Despite the new boats and the fishing enclosure, Fall has had enough of the hippos lurking in the river.
“After I get better,” he said, “I’m changing profession.”