First hippo

When he arrived in London in 1850, Obaysch was the first hippopotamus in Europe for more than a millennium.

George Eastman House from Rochester, NY, United States / Public domain

Europe used to be full of hippos. Hippopotamus antiquus, the European hippo, lived as far north and west as prehistoric Britain, as far south as prehistoric Spain, and as far east as prehistoric Greece. It died out before recorded history began, outdone by our modern hippos, who then too disappeared from Europe. Since then, the only hippos to make it to Europe were imports brought by the Romans… and those hippos didn’t last for long.

Commodus, one of the rather unsettled later emperors, liked to show off his prowess by battling wild animals in the arena, and he may have personally killed one of the last hippos to be seen in Europe for centuries. Consider the shade thrown at Commodus by the Roman historian Cassius Dio:

He often slew in public large numbers of men and beasts as well. For example, all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard [giraffe]. This is what I have to say with reference to his career as a whole.

Cassius Dio – Roman History

So, the hippos of Europe were done in by evolution and Roman emperors. In 1850, the viceroy of Egypt wanted some greyhounds, so he proposed a swap. Obaysch the hippo was caught and hauled all the way to London, where he was put on display in the zoo.

What a sensation! The first hippo in Britain in millennia, the first hippo in Europe in more than a thousand years, Obaysch sat around while the public gawked, took photos, and wrote polkas about him. I’m not kidding on that last one, by the way:

Obaysch doubled the zoo’s attendance the year he arrived, and lived for another 28 years. Probably because there weren’t any more Roman emperors around to stop him.

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