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The Bayou Hippopotamus

Few ecologists will disagree that there are often problems that stem from introducing a new species into an environment. If the species succeeds in breeding in that new environment, the results are not always immediate, but they’re certainly felt before too long. In 1910, the introduction of a new species was proposed for the Louisiana bayou which, had it been successful, would have been all too easy to notice, had it started breeding successfully. That species was the hippopotamus, a creature that is very hard to miss.
Hippopotamus in hyacinth, Kenya

In the early 20th century, with its population growing nationwide and immigrants flooding into the large cities of the East Coast, America saw the beginning of a meat crisis. Supply of beef out West was consistent, but demand was just growing too fast to keep up. Meat was getting expensive, and it looked like we’d soon run out of room to raise cattle on.

Congressman Robert Broussard (D-LA) came up with a plan to take care of this. In his state of Louisiana, there was a lot of swampland that wasn’t much good for farming or ranching or any kind of agriculture. His idea was to import hippopotamus from Africa, who live in swamps there, and introduce them to Louisiana. The hippopotamus would then be ranched on the bayou, since the large animals would provide plenty of meat. As a bonus, since Louisiana had a problem with the hyacinth, an invasive plant that was spreading all over the state, the hippopotamus would take care of that problem by eating them. Two birds, one large stone!

To pull this off, Rep. Broussard enlisted the help of Frederick Russell Burnham, a popular naturalist of the day who was active in founding the Boy Scouts of America, and whose squeaky-clean moral character made him something of a Boy Scout, himself. Burnham had been involved in British Africa, since he was very much in tune with the contemporary notion that it was up to us Westerners to bring civilization to the rest of the world. He also enlisted a one Fritz Duquesne, a Boer who had fought against the British in the Boer War, and who was a pretty savvy con man—sort of the perfect opposite to Burnham’s sterling character.

Left: Frederick Russell Burnham on his boat Dixie III (1911).  Right: Fritz Duquesne posing with a white rhinoceros he killed, courtesy of Field & Stream magazine (1909).

It was up to Burnham and Duquesne, two men who had spent a lot of time in Africa, to figure out how to get the hippos to Louisiana. They had to figure out how to capture them, ship them, ranch them, breed them and slaughter them. Rep. Broussard did his bit, passing hippo jerky around Congress in order to drum up support. He introduced a bill in the House requesting $250,000 for “the importation of useful new animals into the United States”. Burnham and Duquesne founded the New Food Supply Society, which had the sole purpose of hitting up rich people for donations to their project of importing hippos to America.

Broussard and the New Food Supply Society assured the Washington Post that the United States would have lots of hippo meat within just a few years. But the rich donors weren’t so forthcoming with funds, and Broussard had a tough time convincing Congress that this plan was worthwhile. In the end, the whole enterprise fizzled out, and no hippopotamuses ever made it to Louisiana.

Congressman Robert Broussard (D-LA), whose brainchild was the Louisiana hippo meat plan.

But what about that meat shortage we faced a hundred years ago? It didn’t just go away, did it? Well… yes. It was around this time that ranchers hit upon a different solution. They figured out a way to intensify beef production. To accomplish this they converted lots of land to pasture, so they could simply raise more cattle. And improved distribution of freight thanks to the new US Highway system and improved railroad infrastructure made it cheaper to ship feed corn around the country, so ranchers didn’t have to depend so much on finding good grazing land. The meat crisis fizzled along with the hippo meat plan, because we were able to produce so much more meat.

Still, it’s interesting to think about what an American South with a healthy hippo population would be like. Louisiana’s environment would have a bigger problem than mere hyacinth invasion—literally.


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