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January 2019

This is an edited extract from Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London, by John Simons

What is remarkable about Obaysch was that he was the first live hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) to be seen in England since Roman times. Indeed, he was the first live hippo to be seen in Europe since the end of the Roman Empire.

There had once been plenty of hippos in Britain. During the second inter-glacial period, which ended about 125,000 years ago, they ranged across the island inhabiting an environment sustained by climactic conditions roughly equivalent to those of modern day Africa and enjoying co-existence with many other animals that we now think of as exclusively African. Perhaps less enjoyably – as the size and strength of hippos make them more or less immune to predators once they reach maturity – they co-existed with the humans who were also enjoying the warm climate and who retreated south, keeping ahead of the ice as it inexorably covered the savannahs of lowland Scotland and the tropical forests of Middlesex. Hippos make good eating and hippo bones are not uncommon finds. Stand in Trafalgar Square, for example, and you are standing where hippos once wallowed. Catch a train from Charing Cross and a few feet beneath the platform will be the remnants of a landscape that was once rich in hippos.1

Obaysch painted by Joseph Wolf in 1850, based on sketches sent from Egypt by Charles Murray. The painting shows how relatively small Obaysch was at the time of his capture, and reproduces the complex tones of Obaysch's skin.


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