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Man "Swallowed by Hippo That Ripped Off My Arm" Tells What it Was Like Inside

It’s a miracle Paul Templer is alive.

A man who was savagely attacked by a hippo reveals what it was like to be swallowed by the animal (and survive). Native Zimbabwean and canoe safari guide Paul Templer was taking a small group of tourists down the Zambezi river when "a day that started like any other" turned into a nightmare, as he told 7 News. Read on to find out what happened, and how Templer survived.

Just A Regular Day At the "Office"

Mokoro ride in the Okavango Delta in Botswana

On March 9, 1996, Templer was taking a group of six people down the Zambezi river when disaster struck. "I could go with the cliche 'it was a day that started like any other', but it didn't. It started with a sense of foreboding," Templer says. "A friend of mine who was supposed to be leading a canoe safari had come down with malaria. You know, when you have that feeling of trepidation, like something's just not the way it's supposed to be? That's how I felt. But the opportunity to take that safari was fantastic, it was on one of the most beautiful stretches of river, maybe in the world."

Danger In the Water

Hippo head in the blue water, African Hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius capensis, with evening sun, animal in the nature water habitat, Mana Pools NP, Zimbabwe, Africa. Wildlife scene from nature.

The entire party consisted of seven canoes, three of which had tourists, the other four holding Templer and three apprentice guides called Evans, Ben and Mike. "Things were going pretty well. And we came across a pod of about a dozen hippos, just wallowing in the shallows. So I pulled up next to them," Templer says. "We look at the hippos, we start talking about hippos. Of course, there's always someone on a safari who asks if it's true that hippos kill more people every year than any other animal. The answer is yes. So that's why we're gonna stay away from them. Let's go around them."

The Hippo Attacks

Aggressive hippo male attacking the car.

A young bull hippo suddenly attacked the canoe with the young guide in it. "I turned just in time to see the canoe about four feet out of the water, and the guide was catapulted into the river," Templer says. "I thought, 'that's not good' and I told my clients to paddle back to safety, and I move towards Evans. I'm like, 'Hey, hang in there. I'm coming to get you.' He looks at me and he's got panic in his eyes. So I'm reaching over, and it was like a 'made for Hollywood' moment. He's reaching out of the water, and as our fingers almost touch, the water suddenly explodes and everything goes dark."

Swallowed By A Hippo

Hippopotamus in Kruger national park, South Africa

"I'm somewhere deep and dark and dank," Templer says. "I'm trying to move but I can't, but my legs are moving around. From my waist up, I'm not dry, but I'm not wet – I get one hand free, and I can feel the bristles on a hippo's snout. So now I know where I am. It was slimy, slippery, wet. It smelt like a rotten egg. I'm so far down his throat, and I'm not a small guy. So I managed to grab a hold of the tusks and push myself out, and burst to the surface. I've been underwater a while. But I come up and am face to face with the guide I'm trying to rescue, and say 'we really need to get out of here.'"

Going Back To Rescue a Friend


"So I start swimming for safety, but I looked back at Evans, and he wasn't going anywhere. His eyes were like saucers. He tried to stay afloat but I think adrenalin literally overwhelmed him," Templer says. "So I turned and swam back for him, and just as I'm moving in to grab his hand, I'm hit from below. So once again, I'm up to my waist down the hippo's throat. The hippo is just thrashing me around. The hippo spits me out again and I start swimming. I'm making pretty good progress. But then I just see the giant bull hippo charging towards me with his mouth wide open. He scores a direct hit, and he chomps down."

"He Just Goes Bezerk"

Hippo with open muzzle in the water. African Hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius capensis, with evening sun, animal in the nature water habitat, Botswana, Africa.

"This time my head, neck and shoulders are outside one side of his mouth, and from my waist down is outside the other. He just goes bezerk," says Templer. "I remember at one point he threw me up into the air and I did a crazy sort of half twist. And when I fell back and he caught me in his mouth, but so hard that I thought he was gonna chop me in half. One of the clients said it was like watching a vicious dog trying to rip apart a ragdoll. For me, everything was going in slow motion, which was really quite fortunate as I could think it through. I could think, 'OK, hold onto the tusks'. Because I had hippo tusks boring through me, and I figured out if I held onto them, then my flesh didn't tear so much."

"Will I Bleed To Death or Drown?"

A young hippo floats under water. Hippopotamus swims in dirty green water.

"When he took me under water, I could hold my breath and when I came to the surface, I would breathe deeply. This carried on for a bit and then the hippo got tired, and dived for deep water. I remember lying at the bottom of the river, realizing I was wedged inside the hippo's mouth. Looking up, I can see green and blue and the sunlight on the water surface, and when I look around, I can see my blood mingling with the water. I just remember thinking, 'I wonder if I'm gonna bleed to death, or if I'm gonna drown?' It was just a very matter of fact – could me or the hippo hold their breath the longest? Suddenly, the hippo lurched towards the surface, and spat me out again. This time, fellow guide Mike, in the safety kayak, showed incredible courage. He paddled in, and he managed to get up and into it. Now the hippo couldn't climb up after us. So that was the front end of a pretty bad day at the office."


Headstone with flowers
New Africa/Shutterstock

"I had to decide: 'Do I stay or do I go?' Do I shut my eyes and just drift off, call it a day? Or do I keep my eyes open and fight my way through it," Templer says. "I kind of had this incredible sense of peace beyond anything I could ever experience. So I made my choice to carry on and the second I made that choice, oh my word, my body was infused with more pain than I ever thought a body could handle. The pain was so intense that I wished I'd made the other choice – to die. But by then, I didn't seem to have that option." The tour group made it back to safety—but sadly Evans, the apprentice tour guide, died from drowning. 

The Journey to Recovery Begins

In the Hospital Sick Male Patient Sleeps on the Bed

"I had 38 major bite wounds. My left arm from the elbow down had been crushed to a pulp," Templer says. "It had been, as they call it, de-gloved. All the skin had been torn off. Elbow up was crushed, too. I had tusks through my shoulders, both arms were barely attached. I had a punctured lung, which Mike had sealed with GladWrap from a plate of snacks. My Achilles tendon was torn out. I had a tusk through my foot, the back of my neck, my head, the top of my spinal column, the front of my face, my cheek."

The Surgeon Couldn't Save His Arm

surgeon reaches for medical instrument
Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

"I was being kind of an ass in the hospital, because I was feeling sorry for myself," Templer says. "But then the surgeon said something to me that changed my life. He said, 'Paul, you are the sum of your choices. You're exactly who, what and where you choose to be in life.' And I wasn't really impressed with that at the time. It was way easier for me to blame everyone and everything else for what had happened to me. But over time, that's sunk in and, and I realise that stuff's always gonna happen. Good stuff, bad stuff will always happen. But one thing no one can ever, ever, ever take away is our choice over what happens next. How we respond to it, how we show up. And, I think that's what the hippo taught me."

Return To the River


"I think I saw the hippo one more time. I was told by my fellow guides that I screamed so high, and so loud, that it scared the hippo off. I never saw him again, though," Templer says. Templer has since retired from leading safari tours, wrote a book called What's Left of Me and spends his days as a motivational speaker. Visit his website here.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more
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