‘I was up to my waist down a hippo's throat.' He survived, and here's his advice

Zimbabwe guide Paul Templer tells his story of surviving a hippopotamus attack and what to know about these animals.

‘I was up to my waist down a hippo's throat.' He survived, and here's his advice


Paul Templer lived his best life.

He was 28 years old and he conducted tours in Zimbabwe with a special focus on photography safaris.

He was away for several years, and even served in the British Army. He had been away for a few years, including a stint in the British army. It was the wildlife, the flora and fauna, the outdoors, the space, everything. I felt at home.

Templer noted that Zimbabwe's certification program for guides was very rigorous and the guides who had passed were proud. He was thrilled to show tourists the majestic wildlife of the area, including the water-loving and territorial hippos.

He told CNN Travel that it was "idyllic". Life was great - up until I had a bad day at work.

A great day for a river hike

A Saturday, March 9, 1996. A Saturday. Templer found out that a friend of his who was going to guide a canoe trip down the Zambezi River suffered from malaria. He accepted to fill in for his friend. I loved that stretch. This was a place I knew like the backs of my hands.

Six safari clients were on the expedition (four Air France crewmembers, a couple of Germans), three apprentice guide plus Templer. Three canoes were used, with clients in the front two seats and the guide in the rear. One apprentice guide was then in a safety kayak for one person.

They went down the famous Zambezi. "Everything was going as it should." Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

They eventually came across a pod consisting of around a dozen hippos. This is not surprising on the Zambezi River, Africa's longest river. At first, they didn't seem to be alarmed as they were at safe distance. "We were getting closer and I was taking evasive actions. The idea was to paddle around the hippos safely.

Templer's kayak led the way. The other two canoes followed. He pulled into the channel to wait for the others. The third canoe, however, had gotten off course and retreated from the group. Templer isn't sure how it happened.

A big crash is heard. The canoe is catapulted into the air.

Paul Templer

"Suddenly, this big thud. The canoe was catapulted into the air. Evans, the guide at the back of canoe was catapulted from the canoe. Somehow, the clients were able to stay in the canoe.

Evans is in the water and the current is washing Evans towards a mother hippo with her calf, 150 meters (490 feet) away. I have to get him out of the water quickly. I don't want to leave my clients. He shouts at Ben, another guide, to go and retrieve the clients in the canoe.

Ben managed to get the clients safely onto a rock that was in the middle the river, which hippos could not climb.

Rescue attempt

Templer then turned around his canoe to catch Evans. The plan was for him to be pulled alongside and into Templer's boat.

I was paddling toward him... getting closer and I saw this wave of water coming towards me. It was a bit like the old movies where a torpedo would come towards a ship. He said, 'I knew it was either an hippo or really large crocodile that was coming at me.

"But I knew that if i slapped my blade on the water, that would be really loud. He said that the underwater percussion seemed to scare away the animals. "So I slapped water and, as it should have done, the torpedo waves stopped."

Evans was getting close, but so were the female and the calf.

Evans reaches up. 'I am leaning forward - it is like a Hollywood movie. Our fingers were almost touching. The water between us erupted. It happened so quickly I didn't notice anything.

The next events were terrifying and surreal.

My world went dark, and it was strangely quiet. Templer claimed it took him a few moments to realize what was happening.

"From my waist down, I felt the water. I could feel myself getting wet. It was different from my waist down. It was not wet, but neither was it dry. It was like a tremendous pressure on my lower spine. I was unable to move.

"I was down to my waist in a hippo’s throat."

Hippos are huge, territorial and dangerous

A fully-grown hippopotamus is able to fit a large part of an adult in its mouth. According to National Geographic, hippos can reach a length of 16.5 feet (5 meters), an average height of 5.2 feet (1.6 meters), and a weight up to 4.5 tonnes (4 metric tons).

The jaws of these animals can be opened to 150 degrees.

The most terrifying thing about them is their teeth. The molars of the lion are used to eat plants. However, their sharp canines that may reach 20 inches are used as weapons and for fighting. The hippo's bite is three times as strong as that of a Lion. A hippo's bite can cut a person in half.

Natural populations of these animals can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. They are often found near or in rivers, and in other water bodies. They are an invasive specie in Colombia, thanks to the escapees of Pablo Escobar’s menagerie.

Hippos can be aggressive and may attack animals that invade their territory. This includes crocodiles, hyenas and lions.

Hippos and Humans

Also, they kill people. We know this for certain. Internet sources claim that there are 500 attacks and deaths a year. However, the exact number is not known because some occur in remote areas and aren't reported.

When people learn that I study hippos, they ask me: "Is it true that hippos kill more humans than any other animal?" Rebecca Lewison is a conservation ecologist at San Diego State University and an associate professor. She spoke to CNN Travel via email.

I'm not sure how it started, but there's no reliable information or authority. Many people are surprised to learn that hippos can kill humans. Most of them are in water and appear to be slow. There are some interactions that don't result in death, but most people (or hippos), or both, tend to suffer from them.

Dr. Philip Muruthi is the chief scientist of the African Wildlife Fund and vice president for species conservation and scientific research. He said that the AWF does not have a reliable source to determine the number of attacks and fatalities.

One study, which needs to be repeated, found that the likelihood of dying from a hippopotamus is between 29% and 87%. This is higher than the chances of being killed in a shark attack, at 22,7%, or a bear attack, at 4.8%.

He spat me out

Templer had a very poor chance of surviving.

"I think I was so deep down his throat that it must have felt uncomfortable, because he spit me out. Then I sucked in a big lungful of air, and came face-to-face with Evans, my guide, who I had been trying to save. I said: "We have to get out!" '

Once again, my legs are trapped in the throat of the hippo. This time my hands and legs are both trapped.

Paul Templer

Evans was in a serious situation. Templer began swimming back to him. "I was about to move in for the classic lifesaver hold when WHAM! I was hit from below. Once again, I am up to my waist in the hippo’s throat. This time, my legs are stuck but my hands are still free.

He was so beaten that he could not grab his gun. Templer was spit out by the hippo, which turned out be an aggressive older male.

When I surface, I don't see Evans. Templer thought Evans had been saved and tried to escape.

"I'm making good progress. I'm swimming there. I come up to the stroke, and then I swim freestyle. I look under my right arm and until I die I'll never forget this. There's this Hippo charging towards me. His mouth is wide open. He's bearing in on me before he hits directly."

Templer was now laying sideways, with his legs hanging out of one side and his shoulders, head, and neck on the opposite side.

Total Fury

"And then he goes berserk." Templer explained that when hippos fight, they tear each other apart, and destroy the object they are attacking.

"For me, everything happened in slow motion. When he went under water, I would hold my breath. As we were above the water, I would breathe deeply and try to grab onto the tusks which were ripping me apart to prevent being torn apart.

Templer stated that one client who witnessed the horror described it as a "vicious dog trying rip apart an rag doll."

He estimates that the entire attack took three and a quarter minutes.

Mack, the apprentice guide in the safety boat, pulled his kayak inches away from my face. Templer grabbed a handle and Mack dragged him to relative safety on this rock.

The mess was still a major problem.

The hippos in Zimbabwe patrol their area of the man-made Kariba Lake at night. As the sun sets and darkness falls, people should be extra cautious in hippo-friendly areas.

Lewison said that people who live near hippo territories are more likely to be attacked than tourists.

The attacks are mostly in the water but, because hippos attack crops on farms, they also attack people who try to protect their crops. Lewison stated that there are a few tourists, but the majority of attacks happen to local residents.

She said that the encroachment of Africa's growing population is making matters worse and increasing the likelihood of deadly interactions.

Sub-Saharan Africa relies on hippos despite the bad encounters.

This is through nutrient recycling from dung (they consume large amounts of vegetation),' Muruthi said. Muruthi explained that this is achieved by recycling nutrients from their dung.

Lewison stated that hippos attack people not to eat them but to keep them away. 'I do not think hippos are aggressive. But I believe that when they feel pressured, they will attack.'

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Mack asked Templer where Evans was. Mack replied, "He's gone man, just gone."

Templer had to devise a plan for getting them to the riverbank. But 'first, I needed to calm down.'

He surveyed the situation and found that one man was missing. First aid kit, gun and radio were all missing. Six terrified clients, two paddles and two canoes were left. His own body was broken.

"My left foot looked like someone had tried to hammer a hole in it. He could not move his arms. He couldn't move his arms.

He was gurgling blood from his mouth. His lung had been punctured. Mack saw a large hole in Templer's back when he rolled him over. He covered it with Saran wrap from a snack plate.

Templer's decision was clear: They had to get down from that rock, no matter what the risks.

The hippo bumped the canoe. On the ride back, he went from being terrified into calm.

Do I shut my eyes and drift away, or do I stay and fight through it?

The intensity was so high that I almost thought I would die. When I didn't I wished I had.

Paul Templer describes the pain he felt after the attack

"I chose to stay around and as soon I made that decision, I was in more pain than I ever imagined I could endure." It was so intense that I thought I was about to die. When I didn't I wished I had.

Ben and Templer managed to get out of the river but not Evans. Three days later, his body was discovered. He was found dead three days later.

"Evans didn't do anything wrong." It was tragic that he passed away.

Those on the shore were aware that something was amiss in the river. A well-trained Zimbabwean rescue team was able safely transport everyone else from the rock.

"That was my worst day at work."

Next ordeal - Getting medical assistance

Templer had escaped the river, but he was not yet out of woods.

Eight hours were needed to get him to the hospital. He had several major operations in a month. He was sure he'd lose both his arms and one leg. He didn't expect to live, according to his surgeon.

Templer was not only saved by the surgeon's intervention, but he also had his legs and an arm saved. However, the other arm was not a candidate for surgery.

When he felt for his left arm in the ICU, he realized it. It was gone. I remember being devastated. It was almost too much for me to bear. I had spent my entire life as an active person.

He was overwhelmed with relief when he realized that his right arm, and even legs, had been saved. He was "emotionally all across the map" for the rest of the month.

He received physical and occupational therapies in Zimbabwe, and then in the United Kingdom. He received a prosthesis and then began to try to live again.

Templer, Muruthi, and Lewison say that safe outings begin with education and the prevention of trouble.

"Hippos are not interested in people. They will not bother you if you keep them away. Lewison stated that they are not interested in humans.

Muruthi warned, 'Don't get too close to them. They don't like intrusion. They are not predators, and it is by accident that they injure people.

Want to see and photograph the creatures up close? Instead of getting too close to the creatures, invest in binoculars or telephoto lenses.

Respect the rules. Stay in your car if you're a tourist.

Philip Muruthi on avoiding hippo attacks

Muruthi warned that you should not follow the hippo's well-worn paths. Stay close to your group, and avoid approaching them from behind.

Follow the rules. Stay in your car if you're a tourist and the sign says "Stay inside your vehicle." Even if you are in your car, do not drive right up to the animal.

Muruthi suggested that you make noise in hippos-prone areas. It's important that they know you are around.

Muruthi advised: 'Hippos tend to come out of the water in the evenings and at nighttime to forage. Avoid walking along the river during this time. During the dry season, when food is in short supply, you should also be on alert.

Warning signs

Muruthi warned you to be aware of the signs that indicate a disturbed hippos in case you get too close. A agitated hippos will yawn and open its mouth as if it were aggressive.