Congolese Hunt 'Osama' the Hippo

In central Africa, a hippopotamus has been terrorizing people on the upper reaches of the Congo River. Villagers say a lone hippo is attacking canoes in the country's southeast. Those who have been hunting for the animal have named him after another fugitive terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From the Democratic Republic of Congo, now, we bring you the story of Osama the Hippo. He, or she, lives in the Congo River, and the hippo is making things very difficult and dangerous for people in the village of Bukhama. They already face the challenges of daily life in a remote region plagued by violence from rogue militias and outbreaks of disease. NPR's Jason Beaubien has our story.

JASON BEAUBIEN: On this day we're paddling near the headwaters of the Congo River. We're about 2,000 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean and more than 600 miles past Kisingani, the last significant city on the river.

The Congo River is only about 30 to 50 yards wide here, and it looks like an average, mid-sized waterway rather than the vast, powerful one it will become. Winding through low-lying, lush grasslands, it serves as the main, and at times only, transportation route through the area.

ALUNGU MISHIKULU: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: A fisherman named Alungu Mishikulu says he was coming down the river from the town of Bukhama after selling a load of dried fish when he first saw the hippo.

MISHIKULU: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: It was 7:00 in the morning, Mishikulu says. I passed by safely, but the people in the boat behind me were taken by the animal. He says the hippo sprang from the water, furiously attacked the canoe, then slipped back below the surface of the river. In his wake, the broken canoe, the people's bodies and their few possessions were strewn in the water.

Hippos are common to this area, but locals say they rarely attack. The task of organizing hunting parties to try to shoot this hippo fell to several local chiefs. All the hunting missions failed. Wilford Zayeed's (ph) father was the leader of one of the hunting parties.

WILFORD ZAYEED: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The hippo disappeared when the hunters arrived, Zayeed says. Then after a week, it came back again.

Osama the Hippo is always spotted alone. He's believed to be a male, although no one has really gotten a good look at him. A full-grown male hippopotamus can weigh up to 8,000 pounds. The herbivores are extremely territorial. Mature males often have scars across their shoulders and backs from brutal fights with their rivals. There are no accurate statistics, but many wildlife experts rate the hippo as the most lethal animal in Africa, killing more people each year than the more commonly feared lions, crocodiles, and elephants.

Back on the Congo River, Zayeed says his father's hunting party couldn't find footprints or any other sign of Osama, and eventually gave up. A week later, the hippo was back attacking canoes. Villagers started calling the hippo Osama bin Laden, Zayeed says, because he's powerful, deadly, and elusive.

ZAYEED: (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Like Osama bin Laden, he makes these attacks, Zayeed says. People are trying to catch him, and he's un-catch-able. That's why they call him that, Zayeed laughs.

People who live along this part of the Congo River hope that their Osama won't be on the loose for as long as the al Qaeda leader has been.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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