HIPPOPOTAMI IN LOUISIANA
One plant that truly has a terrible reputation in many parts of the world, and with all of the national and international agencies involved in some way with invasive plants, is without a doubt the Eichhornia crassipes, or water hyacinth. Its rapid diffusion and its sovereign contempt for the vast majority of means with which humanity tries to fight it have combined to make it commonly considered the worst aquatic invasive species known to humanity. Furthermore, it has the dubious privilege of membership in the elite club of the “100 worst invasive species” established by the Invasive Species Study Group (ISSG). In short, deemed the vegetable personification of evil, it is hated by everyone. Without reservation. As you might imagine, it is exactly the kind of flora non grata that I find irresistible.
First of all, I wish you could see it. You could never imagine that a monster of this sort could hide behind such a delicate and lovely appearance. The water hyacinth is an aquatic plant with origins in the Amazon, capable of floating thanks to its bulbous, spongy stems, which retain large quantities of air. It has large, shiny, thick leaves, which can form a stratum of vegetable matter on the surface of the water going down as far as three feet deep. Its beautiful and numerous flowers range in color from lavender to pink. They are the bait that has made this plant irresistible. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, in fact, the species was appreciated for its decorative qualities, for which it was imported to Europe. Today, it is present in more than fifty countries on five continents.
The success of this plant, as we were saying, was initially tied to its beauty. First identified and described in 1823—the genus Eichhornia is named after the Prussian prime minister Johann Albert Friedrich Eichhorn (1779–1856)—the species spread quickly throughout the world by using botanists and their botanical gardens as its passkey to the most distant corners of the planet. In repeated campaigns of conquest, the water hyacinth reached every tropical area in the world, spreading outward from Europe, where it arrived in strength, inhabiting public and private gardens throughout half of the continent, in the second half of the nineteenth century. From here, thanks to exchanges between botanists and collectors, its colonization took off.
Around 1884, the plant arrived in Asia, where it was offered hospitality in the botanical garden of Java. How it managed to conquer the entire continent in just a few years is still not clear. Some say it escaped from the botanical garden immediately, taking advantage of the reflux of water following a flood, and that, once it got to a river, it never stopped. Others contend, more romantically, that a Thai princess, having seen the water hyacinth in the botanical garden in Bogor in 1907 and immediately fallen in love with it, brought home some exemplars to her palace pond, from where, having no natural enemies, the plant spread throughout all of Thailand in just four years.
It got to Australia in 1890, as an ornamental plant for ponds. In 1895, it was found living free in New South Wales, and in 1897, botanists at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney worried about the speed with which it had colonized all of the garden’s ponds and waterways. By the early years of the twentieth century, it had crossed the frontiers of New South Wales and entered Queensland. In 1976, entire fluvial basins were completely covered with the plant.
The water hyacinth arrived in Africa in successive waves starting with the end of the eighteenth century and continuing down to our own time. It was first sighted in Lake Victoria in 1989. By 1995, 90 percent of the Ugandan part of the lake was covered with it.
In its continuous expansion through the tropical areas of the planet, the water hyacinth inevitably found its way to the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century. In this case, too, its passe-partout for entry into the States was the beauty of its efflorescence.
In 1884, during the New Orleans World’s Fair, also known as the World Cotton Centennial, a group of Japanese visitors paid homage to local authorities and the organizers of the event by presenting them with some exemplars of the water hyacinth. The gift was greatly appreciated. As usual, the plant’s fascination was in the beauty of its flowers. So, with the intention of depriving as few people as possible of the pleasure of enjoying the flowering of the guest from Japan, the exemplars were subdivided among the principal public and private gardens throughout the state that were endowed with opportune aquatic areas. The impact was instantaneous. In a few short years, the nearly supernatural ability of the water hyacinth to propagate itself along waterways rendered the plant ubiquitous in many states of the South.
The spread of the species was so fast and unstoppable that it quickly became a serious problem. As early as 1897, in Florida, the main waterways were found to have as much as twelve pounds of Eichhornia crassipes per square foot. No one managed to contain the spectacular spread of the plant, and the breathtaking speed of its dispersal constituted a risk for fish and aquatic animals as well as for numerous water-based economic pursuits. Not the least of these last was navigation. In some rivers, the blanket of vegetation was so thick and extensive that it was impenetrable for boats. The need for a remedy was urgent. But what could be done to block an advance that looked to be unstoppable? Proposals sprouted up everywhere: from the use of natural enemies (but none of the ones proposed seemed to have the slightest impact on the spread of the plant), to projects for machine harvesting carried out by specially modified vessels, all the way to the proposal by the Department of Defense to pour oil on the plants and set them on fire. All legitimate proposals but also totally ineffective.
It’s at this point in the story that an extraordinary character enters the scene, the very symbol of the saga of the Wild West and indisputable hero for millions of people in the United States and elsewhere. Allow me to introduce him by using the original words with which a speaker introduced him to a live audience at the beginning of the last century: “I am going to introduce you to a man who knows the cruel edges of war . . . a soldier. A scout whose name has filled both hemispheres with stories of his daring and loyal service . . . the rider of the bad lands between the lines, who trusts his own knowledge some, providence a great deal, and the sound legs and good horse sense of his steed perhaps most of all . . . I am honored, in being permitted to present . . . the only man in America who [knows] the darkest shades of darkest Africa . . . Major Frederick R. Burnham.”
His story has the flavor of the incredible; the number of heroic adventures that he participated in over the course of his life is literally incalculable. As is often the case, describing things that happen in the United States requires units of measure bigger than their European counterparts. Grander spaces, more magnificent buildings, more powerful machines, longer trains, and certainly more awe-inspiring heroes. Hundreds of books have been written about Burnham’s life. I certainly do not have the space here to trace, even briefly, a plausible portrait of such an outsized personality, but I must ask you to put together two hard and simple facts, based on incontrovertible evidence.
Short in stature (just under five feet four inches tall), Burnham shared that Napoleonic aptitude for command and authority that many men of reduced dimensions tend to develop. His body, though small, was incredibly compact and appeared to be made of some invulnerable fiber. He managed to hold up under deprivations and wounds that would have killed anyone else. It was said that, like a cat, he was possessed of the classic—in Italian terms—“seven lives,” the number of lives that one of our heroes would need just to collect—without even pretending to play a starring role in them— the countless adventures that highlight the life of Major Burnham. I will try to run through just the main ones.
He is born to missionary parents on a Dakota Sioux reservation. Still in swaddling clothes, he survives an attack led by Little Crow during the Dakota War of 1862. At age twelve, he is already on his own in California, working as a rider for Western Union. At fourteen, we find him as an expert scout following the tracks of the enemy in the Apache Wars. He takes part in the expedition to capture and kill Geronimo. He fights in the Pleasant Valley War. He learns to shoot with a gun in each hand while riding a horse at a gallop. He becomes deputy sheriff of Arizona’s Pinal County. In 1893, concluding that the American frontier has by now become a tame place, he sails with his wife and son for South Africa to join up with the British pioneers in Matabeleland (subsequently better known as Rhodesia). During the thousand-mile hike from Durban to Matabeleland, the war between the British and King Lobengula of Matabeleland breaks out. Burnham enlists and becomes a British national hero. In 1895, he leads a British expedition to Northern Rhodesia. He shares in the discovery of numerous copper mines and is elected to membership in the Royal Geographical Society. In 1896, he participates in the Second Matabele War, during which he meets Robert Baden-Powell and together they draw up the plans for an organization that will see the light a decade or so later: the Boy Scouts. He returns to the United States, where the Spanish-American War is being waged, but he gets there late and the fighting has already come to a close. In 1900, exploring the Klondike, he receives a telegram asking him to serve as head British scout in the Second Boer War, and, without hesitation, he catapults from the Klondike to Cape Town, on the other side of the globe. During the conflict, he spends most of his time behind enemy lines, blowing up bridges and train tracks. Twice he is captured and escapes. He is gravely wounded but survives. He is invited to dinner by Queen Victoria. Her son Edward VII offers him a commission as a major in the British Army. From 1902 to 1904, he leads mining expeditions in Africa. Then he participates in the First World War. He works in counterespionage. He discovers oil in California, makes a fortune . . . and so on, and on, but I’ll stop here.
In short, there should be no doubt, Major Frederick R. Burnham is an American legend. So, in 1910, when together with the senator from Louisiana Robert Broussard and Burnham’s former sworn enemy Fritz Joubert Duquesne, he begins a campaign to convince the United States Congress to authorize the importation of hippopotami, nobody claims he is crazy.
On the contrary, the idea seems ingenious: import hippos from Africa to be raised along the rivers and swamps of Louisiana, so they will eat the water hyacinth and produce all the meat that the United States in those years so desperately needs.
The argument is convincing and not without a certain charm. Before the congressional committee convened to decide on this bizarre request, Burnham asks why Americans stubbornly insist on consuming only cows, pigs, sheep, and chicken. Are they supposedly American animals? No, they were all imported by Europeans centuries ago. So why not import hippos? With time, Burnham tells the committee, a roast hippo will become as natural for Americans as a pork chop or chicken soup. His reasoning is wrinkle free, but by just a single vote the committee fails to usher in the revolution.
I don’t know if introducing hippos would have resolved the meat shortage. Maybe. I don’t have the competence to imagine what would have happened to hippopotami in an environment so different from their native habitat. I do know, however, that hippos are not domesticated animals. I don’t think it would have been so easy to raise them. I have fewer doubts, however, about the fact that their presence wouldn’t have done much to contain the spread of the water hyacinth. On numerous other occasions, people have tried to rein in plant species thought to be invasive by introducing potential predators. These efforts have almost never produced the hoped-for results. Often they have created problems worse than those they were meant to resolve. In the most fortunate cases, they succeeded only in introducing a new species to worry about. If that one committee member who cast the decisive no vote had voted yes, there might be hippos today in the United States, but I have no doubt that they would still be swimming in rivers and swamps infested by the water hyacinth.