Numlock Sunday: Maggie Koerth on hippos
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Maggie Koerth, who wrote “America Has A Thing For Hippo Parts” for FiveThirtyEight. Here's what I wrote about it:
Several ecological advocacy groups are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add hippopotamuses to the list of species that are covered under the Endangered Species Act, a move designed to rein in a shockingly pervasive trade in the body parts of hippos in the United States. From 2015 to 2019, hippo-exporting countries shipped 11,734 teeth, 5,071 small leather products, 4,184 skins and 3,675 skin pieces, 2,516 trophies and 1,867 tusks. The United States is in most years the destination for about half of all hippo exports.
We spoke about why the hippo is in the ironic position of being specifically undesirable but, because it’s the most available exotic animal, killed and turned into leather goods on a surprisingly massive scale.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Maggie, what got you interested in hippos?
You get press releases sometimes, and most of the time they don't matter at all, but I got this press release that was from the Humane Society and another ecology organization, and they were wanting to put hippos on the American Endangered Species Act list. I was kind of curious about what was going on there! But then they mentioned that America was the number one importer of hippo parts in the world, and that immediately got my attention because the phrase hippo parts really just kind of hits a certain spot.
It's jarring, you might say.
It's jarring. It's a little jarring, and I was like, "What are we doing with all these hippo parts?" I don't know about you, but I look around and I do not see a bunch of Mr. Burn's gorilla vests walking down the street. I just could not imagine how we were the number one importer of hippo parts on earth. So I had to look into it and got to go into some of this data, and yeah, turns out we are, and a lot of it is skin.
The story, I really enjoyed it and it was just so jarring because number one, I did not recognize that there was a sufficient trade in hippo parts that we would even be able to compile an international ranking! I suppose my question is, this data's really great, and I was wondering how you went about getting that part of it?
The data is coming from CITES. Basically there's this big international treaty that allows for trade in endangered species; this is both the thing that establishes what an internationally recognized endangered species is, and also allows for certain amounts of trade in those species. It differs based on how seriously endangered the animal is. You have something like African elephants that are in one category of the CITES data, and they're very, very hard to trade anything legally, because you have to prove that this is not going to be harming this species, and it almost certainly is. We are talking about something like elephants. But then you have hippos, which are in the second category of CITES animals, and hippos are an animal whose populations are trending downward over time, but if you go to any place where hippos still live, there's a crap ton of hippos.
To the point that one of the researchers I talked to was even like, "Yeah, if I went and told people we're really worried about hippo populations, they'd be like, 'Lady, oh my God, look behind you. There're just dozens of these things.'" Which I kind of loved because it also sounded threatening, like the hippos were sneaking up and about to eat you. But what basically happens to those category two animals is that all you need to trade in their parts or whole bodies or living selves is verification from the selling country that this isn't going to actively reduce their population in a really threatening, severe way, and then the accepting country basically just has to say like, "Yeah, we saw the documentation from that other country."
So there is lots of trade that happens legally in these animals every year. It was really interesting to me to see this breakdown that between 2015 and 2019, you're looking at 11,000 hippo teeth, 5,000 leather products, small, 4,000 skins, 3,500 skin pieces, 2,500 trophies. I mean the stuff is getting sent out all over the world from these countries that export hippos. And it is tracked, and it's not necessarily tracked perfectly; one of the things that was really interesting is that the numbers that the exporting countries report almost never match up with the numbers the importing countries report.
Yeah. So there's a lot of weirdness happening there and probably a lot of fudging and poaching still mixed in with all of this. But we at least kind of have these numbers that you can start to go through and figure out like, "Okay, who's sending this out, where, who is accepting the most of this, where are the places that are sending this out saying they're sending it?" And all of these interesting trends sort of pop up in the data. It was really actually very fun for me because I've been on the COVID beat for the last two years, so this was the first time in a really long time I got to play with pivot tables.
Yeah. It was real nice to see Maggie on some general science beat that wasn't about the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
I know! It was really exciting for Maggie to be on something that wasn't about the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
You're a science writer, you're one of my favorite science writers, and it just seems like there's been one huge story and it was just great to see you dive back into some freaking hippo data again. That was really cool.
Yeah. It was very, very fun for me. You want the weirdest thing?
Hit me. What is it?
This is the absolute weirdest thing that I found in this data. The U.S. was the biggest place that hippo parts are being exported to according to the exporting countries, almost all the years. The one year that we were not was 2018. And the reason that we were not is because in 2018 there was a 1,200 percent increase in the exportation of hippo teeth compared to the previous year, and almost all of it was going to Hong Kong. And then the next year it went back to normal again.
For some reason, in 2018 there were like 9,000 hippo teeth exported to Hong Kong. And in 2017 and 2019 that did not happen.
Trade data is wild. That's incredible.
It's incredible. And I have no clue what was going on there. I'm assuming it's some sort of substitute for ivory, because hippo teeth and tusks have been used as ivory substitutes. But I don't know why 2018, and I don't know why. This is like a five-year period where you have like 11,734 hippo teeth exported and almost all of them are that one year.
The shipping container alone must be horrifying.
Just imagine the shipping container stuffed with teeth?
It's a horror novel. It's amazing.
I really love this story, and I really liked it because again, it really kind of focuses on some of this undercover component of the international wildlife trade, which is huge and it's devastating and there are reasons that this treaty exists. This was just such a fascinating animal that is in this liminal space between "probably should be protected" but "doesn't really seem endangered."
Exactly. Like it's really interesting that we have all of these animals that we are clearly having a negative effect on. But we aren't having enough of a negative effect yet. Basically what you can do at that point is sort of sit around and be like, "Well, call us when he's really endangered." And in the meantime, we'll just keep doing the things that make him really endangered!
It's just this weird space. It's this very weird space.
It's weird that we set up a system to create endangered species and not act until they have hit a level of criticality that is threatening their very existence.
Right, yeah, exactly. The reason that the Humane Society wants to get this listed with the Endangered Species Act is because if you do that, you can basically start cutting off legal imports to the U.S., so that would also then cut down on the illegal imports because if there aren’t legal hippo parts floating around our customs, then we know that when hippo parts show up, they're not supposed to be here. That's part of their goal is to basically just start cutting off that flow of hippo parts into this country.
But it's interesting, because a lot of this is skin that's coming to the U.S., skin and skin parts and leather goods that are small, and one of the other interesting things that came up in this is that a lot of this is coming through Mexico. Mexico has this whole leatherworking industry, an exotic leatherworking industry. There are a lot of leather goods that are hippo; hippo leather goods that are being imported to the United States are actually coming from Mexico, not from countries where hippos live.
Mexico is not known for its hippo population.
I don't think the Columbian hippos have gone north yet. There's just this whole leatherworking industry that is multinational and it's not just directly from one place to another. It's coming through other places, and apparently a lot of it's going to exotic leather cowboy boots.
That's a weird product.
It is. But it was one of those things, I was talking to several different researchers who study the fashion trade in endangered species and hippos aren't super in demand for that. It's not like tiger skins. It's not like elephant tusks. It's actually lower grade, because we're talking about really thick, tough skins that have cuts and scars and stuff in them because hippos fight all the time. It is not the prettiest stuff in the entire world. But because these are lower rank in the CITES classification, it's easier to get, so sometimes if what you want is exotic leather boots, it's a lot easier to get a hippopotamus boot than it is to get an elephant boot, for instance. So people will get a hippopotamus boot, and so it's kind of a substitute exotic good. That's still exotic, but is not so exotic that it's really expensive and a pain in the ass. Which is also in that liminal space, a really interesting place for the hippos to be, right?
Nobody specifically wants you, but they'll tolerate you because they can't get the stuff they really want.
What an unbelievable reason to kill a hippo.
Exactly. And actually, when I was talking to a researcher from the World Wildlife Fund, he had been poking around trying to figure out online before we talked about, what are these hippo skins being used for? Apparently he did enough research that he accidentally told the algorithms on his computer that he was in the market for hippo boots.
And a pop-up ad for hippo boots appeared on his computer when he visited the FiveThirtyEight website while we were on the phone together.
Oh no. So you're telling me the headline of this story should be "FiveThirtyEight profits from hippo boots."
FiveThirtyEight profits from hippo boots. Also, hippo boots can be had for about $760.
That's the wrong amount of money for that. Okay. Maggie, thank you so much for chatting with me. Where can folks find you and find your work?
I am at FiveThirtyEight.com. It's all spelled out in letters, not numbers. You can find me on Twitter @maggiekb1. That is my main thing. I'm also occasionally on NPR’s Science Friday news roundup.