A century after the last wild hippopotamus was killed by settlers in North Texas, a dozen hippos will soon make residence in Lewisville.
Under a program at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas A&M University, 12 hippos will be relocated from a wildlife preserve in Africa to Lewisville’s own green centerpiece.
Soon, the nine female and three male hippos will be able to graze, swim and roll around in the mud at LLELA. Eight of the hippos are adults, and four are juveniles.
The hippos are currently on a ship crossing the Atlantic and will arrive at the Port of Galveston April 21, where they’ll be loaded onto semi trailers for the trip to Lewisville.
Once plentiful on the Blackland Prairie that stretched across North Texas, early settlers killed them in droves in the late 1800s both for meat and for self protection, according to Texas A&M Extension agent Calvin Hooves.
“The combination of grassy prairie and fresh water from the Elm Fork made the area around Lewisville ideal for hippos,” Hooves said.
The project might rightly be called an experiment — this is the first of its kind for hippo reintroduction in the U.S.
Jon Appleton, a project manager at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that scientists and wildlife managers at his agency were all excited about the move.
“We’ve been pretty much full time on this project since last October,” Appleton said. “All of our local personnel have been to Africa to receive training at the world’s most renowned hippopotamus sanctuary.”
Lewisville was selected out of five finalist cities to receive the hippos, beating out Dallas and Bridgeport, the other two cities in Texas to apply for the hippos.
“We chose Lewisville because LLELA is a controlled area on federal property, with buy-in from a city that understands conservation and protection of natural resources and biodiversity,” Appleton said.
Though the project will mean some changes for LLELA’s mission and operations, employees welcomed the move and have already begun stringing barbed wire along the 95 acre area the hippos will call home.
LIza Koch, director of education for LLELA, was busy Friday putting the finishing touches on educational signage to be installed there to explain the program and warn visitors about safe ways to view the hippos.
“They can be pretty aggressive and unpredictable,” Koch said of the semi-aquatic mammals. “That’s why we’re confining them to the east side of the river.”
The hippo habitat will begin just south of the dam, running along the east side of the river to State Highway 121 business. A connected section will give the hippos access to grasslands further east.
Barbed wire will be added, and about two miles of trails will be closed to accommodate the beasts and keep humans out.
Fishermen who currently use that side of the river will be greeted with a locked gate beginning next week. They’ll have to do their fishing on the west side.
Not everyone is thrilled about the hippos’ return to North Texas.
Richard Beatty, a naturalist and fisherman who visits LLELA regularly to “drown worms” and take photos of birds, said the move was “super dumb.”
“I can’t even believe this right now,” said Beatty. “You’ve got to be fu**ing kidding me with this sh**.!”
Beatty is concerned about safety and the loss of prime fishing area.
“First of all, they’re hippos. They attack people! Someone is going to get killed,” Beatty said. “Secondly, the shores are already crowded. Now I’ve got to share fishing area with twice as many people, and I’ve got to worry about being charged by an angry hippopotamus. This is your government in action!”
Beatty’s concerns are not unfounded. Although hippos are mostly vegetarian, they have been known to attack and kill humans and livestock.
Norman Merriwether, professor of history at University of North Texas said that is precisely why early settlers to North Texas killed off the hippo herds that used to roam the area.
“It was self preservation,” Merriwether said. “The early settlers were vulnerable, and the weapons they had for self protection at the time were not enough to stop an attack.”
Livestock was often poached by roaming hippos, and the beasts could easily crush the log cabins settlers lived in.
“They paid professional hippo hunters – hippoqueros – four dollars apiece to kill hippos with 6-gauge shotguns,” Merriwether said. “They’d bring the severed tail to the county sheriff’s office and collect the bounty.”
Koch said the hippos would leave people alone as long as people left them alone.
“They’ll get in the river and swim,” said Koch. But they won’t cross over to the other side.
“I am terrified that hippos will cross the river and bust out and terrorize our city,” said Merriwether.
LLELA is open 7 days a week at the corner of Kealy and Jones. Visitors may enter for $5 per car, or use a $60 annual pass.