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Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 09:33 UK
Close encounter with a wild hippo
Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News


Suddenly the situation turns dangerous as Deadly 60 presenter Steve Backshall is confronted by a wild hippo

A BBC presenter has had a close encounter with a dangerous wild hippo, which cornered him on a river near Hoedspruit in South Africa.

Floating in his kayak, Steve Backshall was filming for the BBC wildlife series Deadly 60 when the incident occurred.

While studying a wild hippo from a safe distance, another unexpectedly surfaced nearby, cutting off Backshall's escape.

This and other bizarre hippo encounters are described in the series covering nature's most formidable creatures.

"While we might think of hippos as being cute and cuddly creatures, in Africa they are an animal that people are quite frightened of, and we found there is a very good reason for that," says Backshall.

"They are an animal that will turn and will attack with the mildest of provocations and will turn from one which is gently feeding or wallowing into a rampaging mess of tusks and bulk in a millisecond."

He was heading down the river and we got in his way. He didn't like it
Deadly 60 presenter Steve Backshall

While filming just before dusk, Steve almost discovered to his cost just how unpredictable hippos can be.

"We were paddling down river hoping to come across one. All of a sudden there was one in front of us in the river. We kept a good respectful distance away from it so we always had time to react and get out of the way if it did decide to come for us," he says.

"Even with the hippo 30 to 40m away with the water between us, it was still pretty nerve racking."

But then events took a turn for the worse.

Despite the production team's best planning, and the careful watch the crew kept on Backshall and the surrounding water, another hippo appeared unexpectedly.

"It just popped up alongside us. And it was blocking off the escape route I had in my head to get out of the water," recalls Backshall.

"This one also had more of an attitude about it. He was heading down river and we got in his way. He didn't like it."

"All of a sudden it changed from a nervy situation to a genuinely dangerous situation."


Meet Jessica, the world's only tame hippo.

Backshall had to paddle furiously to avoid the encroaching hippo, which also passed close to a second boat containing a cameraman and local guide.

"It was a difficult situation to get out of safely. We were pretty lucky really," he says.

The experience didn't deter him having another close encounter with a hippo. As part of the same programme, Backshall also got the opportunity to get into bed with Jessica, the only hippo in the world habituated to people.

Jessica has been raised by ex game keeper Tonie Joubert and his wife Shirley in the grounds of their house near Hoedspruit.

"You can't say this is a tame hippo, it still goes out and socialises with wild hippo pods in the evenings," says Backshall. "I have to say, I was still nervous."

He may have had good reason to be, as Jessica can be seen on the video having a go at the BBC camera crew.


Steve Backshall talks to Robert, a victim of a hippo attack

The Deadly 60 programme also recounts the story of a man who was attacked by hippo that chased him up a tree.

"He was out at night in a lemon grove working and this hippo just came out of nowhere and chased him up a tree and stuck his tusk through his leg. That pretty much says a lot about why hippos are so feared," says Backshall.

It turns out, however, that the incident in the river is not that unusual for Backshall.

"It is not the first time it has happened to me," he says.

"The first time I was charged by a hippo in the water I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was out in Kenya with my family and we had got inadvertently in a very small wooden boat between her mother and her calf and she just charged full bore at us. Our guide at the time was beating this hippo off with a wooden paddle. Really scary stuff."

Deadly 60 will be broadcast on the CBBC channel each Thursday at 5.15pm, starting on 28 May.

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