You’ve probably heard it: “More people are killed each year by hippos than by any other animal in Africa.” I don’t know how many times I’ve encountered that statement, often in formats suggestive of authority: PBS documentaries, books on Africana, articles in the main magazines.
Recently, while attempting Internet research on leopard-human interactions, I kept getting sidetracked to sites promising an answer to the often-asked, perennial question: “What’s the deadliest animal in Africa?” Or, in a slight but (I will argue) substantial variation, “What’s the most dangerous animal in Africa?”
Stated, either way, the answer, according to various authority-dot-com sites is The hippo.
While examining this material, I was struck by a couple of recurrent and troubling problems. First was the sheer lack of factual support. No one offered actual stats to back their claims. Did I keep wondering: Well, how many people are killed by hippos in a given year? How does that compare with the number of fatalities caused by the cross, or man-eating lions, or ticked-off elephants? No one said, or seemed to know. I also was finding too many errors of fact and science, things I knew were misleading or downright wrong. My b.s. Detector began to redline. I decided it was time to look into and consider this “most dangerous / deadliest animal in Africa” question with a bit more rigor and care.
Toward that end, a few caveats and clarifications are in order. “Africa,” for our purposes, means the sub-Saharan hunting and safari countries. “Animal” means any fauna, large or small, excepting humans. No doubt in various parts of Africa, evil people are the most dangerous creatures in the vicinity, but that’s a topic beyond the scope of this column. I will add, however, that “other drivers” and roaming domestic cattle can be the two most dangerous beasts you are likely to encounter on many rural highways and roads.
The terms “deadly” and “dangerous” are often used interchangeably, which is a mistake in my opinion. Critical means likely and able to cause injury. Toxic means possible and able to cause death. Obviously, the two can combine, but they needn’t always, and often don’t. To use a North American example, copperheads are dangerous in some locales but are rarely deadly. Another example: scorpions are a common danger in various regions around the world (including Africa). The stings can be terribly painful and can make you feel quite ill for a day or two, but adult human Fatalities from scorpion stings are rare. Ergo: Scorpions can be dangerous, but seldom are deadly. For our purposes, the “most dangerous” animal is the one that causes the most human deaths per year in a given region.
And then there are the number problems, the difficulty of finding real data on animal attacks and human fatalities. As I knew from the previous researching, when it comes to animal-caused human deaths in Africa, real numbers are hard to find. That’s partly because the official, accurate recordkeeping is the exception rather than the rule in much of Africa, and also because many rural deaths are never reported. Thus even the best statistics are approximate and are tilted to the conservative or small side. Here I will use the most reliable-seeming numbers one could find, taken from and corroborated by professional zoological reports and medical journals.
So, accounting for all of these variables, what do the numbers tell us about Africa’s deadliest animal? Are the authority-dot-com people right? Do hippos kill more people in Africa per year than any other animal?
According to the best stats, I could find, hippos kill 200 to 300 humans annually. Leopards, which sometimes become man-eaters, kill about 400 people per year, though an unknown portion of those kills occurs in India and Nepal. Lions kill 400 to 500 humans yearly, and man-eaters are a regular threat in some locales. Elephants account for 200 to 500 deaths, mostly in central Africa, but some in India as well. Crocodiles are, by far, the most prolific man-eaters in Africa, killing at least 1,000 people per year, a semiofficial estimate that many believe is well below the actual tally.
Clearly, the hippo is not the deadliest animal in Africa.
But neither is the crocodile.
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The croc is the most prodigious eater of humans, but not the greatest killer of them. Venomous snakes kill far more people each year. According to recent estimates, 2.5 million inhabitants are “envenomated” by snakes each year, and about 125,000 of those victims die. How many of these deaths occur in Africa isn’t specified, though sub-Saharan Africa is considered (along with India and Sri Lanka) one of the worst snakebite regions in the world. Deaths caused by spitting cobras, mambas, ringhals, puff adders, saw-scaled and gaboon vipers, boomslangs, and various apps have to number in the thousands, and probably the tens of thousands.
Does that make snakes the deadliest animals in Africa, regarding being responsible for the most people killed per year? I’m sure most of you are well ahead of me: That dark award has to go to the unprepossessing mosquito (and the protozoan parasites it transmits). Human deaths from malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever are estimated in the millions, annually. More people are killed by mosquito bites each year than by all other animal bites combined, and multiplied by a factor I couldn’t begin to compete.
And yet, we now need to return to the deadly versus critical distinction. Unless the statistics are completely haywire, it’s pretty clear that hippos aren’t the most dangerous animals in Africa. They aren’t even the deadliest: mammal, or quadruped. Burr could hippos still be the most dangerous beasts in Africa? If not the most likely to kill you, could they nonetheless be the most liable to cause injury?
Probably not in most cases, but possibly in some. Because “danger,” as it turns out, is situation-specific. It varies according to the locale, the immediate habitat, and the activity of the moment. If you’re a hunter taking the appropriate medical precautions, and if you’ve been inoculated for yellow fever ( if applicable ) and are not in a dengue fever region, do mosquitoes pose the greatest danger? Probably not (though there are some medicine-resistant strains of malaria showing up here and there). Another example: Hyenas kill between ten and fifty humans a year, and attack hundreds. They “frequently bite off the faces of sleeping victims,” according to one medical journal report. But if you are sleeping indoors or inside a tent, or if you are not in an area where hyenas have been a problem, what’s the level of actual threat from this species? Probably minimal, unless you do something dumb or are the victim of truly unusual bad luck.
What we come to, finally, is some insight into the essential naivety or even vacuity of the “most deadly/most dangerous animal in Africa” question–and other issues like it. Unless focused down to specific region/activity/reality particulars, this brand of over-general question is pretty much already doomed in the asking. Whereas if you inquire of five professional hunters from different regions, perhaps with differing specialties, what they think is the “most dangerous” animal–the one most likely to cause serious harm to a hunter–you might get four or five different answers. And each could be correct for its particular locale and circumstances.
Well, at least we’ve learned that hippos aren’t the deadliest animal in Africa–although that fact won’t mean much if you happen to run into the wrong hippo at the wrong time and place. In the face of experience, all the generalities and statistics in the world don’t mean much at all.