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Man "Swallowed by Hippo" Reveals What it Was Like Inside: Like a "Vicious Dog Trying to Rip Apart a Rag Doll" 

Former safari guide Paul Templer is lucky to be alive after a hippo attacked him. 

A man who was viciously attacked by a hippo is reliving his "bad day at the office." The course of Paul Templer's life, a native Zimbabwean and canoe safari guide, changed when he agreed at the last minute to take a group of tourists down the Zambezi river.  "Things were going the way they were supposed to go," he told CNN Traveler until they weren't and Templer had to fight off a hippo several times. Read on to learn how he survived and how the attack happened. 

Templer Wasn't Supposed to Lead a Tour the Day of the Attack


On Saturday March 9, 1996, Templer wasn't supposed to work, but picked up a last minute tour guiding tourists down the Zambezi River because another tour operator had malaria. "I loved that stretch of the river. It was an area I know like the back of my hand," he said.

But he had a sense that something was off. "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," he told 7 News.  "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," he recalled.

"Everyone Was Having a Pretty Good Time"


Templer was guiding six safari clients down the river (four Air France crewmembers and a couple from Germany), plus three apprentice guides. There were three canoes. The clients were in the first two, with a guide in the back. There was also one apprentice guide in a one-person safety kayak. Things were going the way they were supposed to go, Templer said. "Everyone was having a pretty good time."

The Pod of 12 Hippos


On their journey the group came across a dozen hippos, which isn't unusual for that stretch of the river. At first, there was no reason to be alarmed, and the travelers kept their distance. But "we were getting closer, and I was trying to take evasive action. … The idea was let's just paddle safely around the hippos," Templer stated.

His canoe led the way, but when he made it through the channel and waited he knew there was a problem. The third canoe had fallen behind.

"Suddenly There's a Big Thud"

Paul Templer/Facebook

As Templer waited, he heard a loud sound. "Suddenly, there's this big thud. And I see the canoe, like the back of it, catapulted up into the air. And Evans, the guide in the back of the canoe, catapulted out of the canoe." The clients in the canoe somehow stayed in the lightweight boat. "Evans is in the water, and the current is washing Evans toward a mama hippo and her calf 150 meters [490 feet] away. … So I know I've got to get him out quickly. I don't have time to drop my clients off."

Templer jumped into action and yelled to Ben, one of the other guides, to help the clients in the canoe that had been attacked to get to safety. He was able to get them to a rock in the middle of the river that hippos couldn't climb. 

Templer Races to Rescue Evans


Templer went back to help get Evans out of the water. He planned to get close enough to Evans to pull him into his canoe. "I was paddling towards him … getting closer, and I saw this bow wave coming towards me. If you've ever seen any of those old movies with a torpedo coming toward a ship, it was kind of like that. I knew it was either a hippo or a really large crocodile coming at me," he said. "

But I also knew that if I slapped the blade of my paddle on water … that's really loud. And the percussion underwater seems to turn the animals away," he said. "So I slapped the water, and as it was supposed to do, the torpedo wave stops."

While he was getting close to Evans, he was also getting close to a female hippo and her calf.  "I'm leaning over – it's kind of a made-for-Hollywood movie – Evans is reaching up. … Our fingers almost touched. And then the water between us just erupted. Happened so fast I didn't see a thing."

The Attack


Templer wasn't able to get Evans at that moment and what happened next changed his life forever. "My world went dark and strangely quiet," Templer said.

"From the waist down, I could feel the water. I could feel I was wet in the river. From my waist up, it was different. I was warm, and it wasn't wet like the river, but it wasn't dry either. And it was just incredible pressure on my lower back. I tried to move around; I couldn't. "I realized I was up to my waist down a hippo's throat." 

"He Spat Me Out"


Templer was lodged in the hippo's throat. "I'm guessing I was wedged so far down its throat it must have been uncomfortable because he spat me out. So I burst to the surface, sucked a lungful of fresh air and I came face to face with Evans, the guide who I was trying to rescue. And I said, 'We got to get out of here!'"

Evans Was in Trouble


Templer was able to escape but realized Evans was in trouble. Templer started swimming back for him "and I was just moving in for your classic lifesaver's hold when – WHAM! – I got hit from below. So once again, I'm up to my waist down the hippo's throat. But this time my legs are trapped but my hands are free."

Templer tried to go for his gun, but couldn't because he was tossed around by the hippo, who was an older, aggressive male , and spat Templer out a second time. "This time when I come to the surface I look around, there's no sign of Evans." 

Another Attack


At this point, Templer is still fighting for his life. He assumed Evans had been able to get away at this point and was trying to make his escape. "I'm making pretty good progress and I'm swimming along there and I come up for the stroke and swimming freestyle and I look under my arm – and until my dying day I'll remember this – there's this hippo charging in towards me with his mouth wide open bearing in before he scores a direct hit."

This time, Templer was sideways in the hippo's mouth, legs dangling out one side of the mouth, shoulders and head on the other side of its mouth.

The Hippo Goes "Berserk"


Now Templer is the one in trouble and recalled how the hippo " just goes berserk. … When hippos are fighting, the way they fight is they try to tear apart and just destroy whatever it is they're attacking. "For me, fortunately everything was happening in slow motion. So when he'd go under water, I'd hold my breath. When we were on the surface, I would take a deep breath and I would try to hold onto tusks that were boring through me."

Templer said one of the clients who witnessed the savage attack described it like a "vicious dog trying to rip apart a rag doll."

Templer Was Saved By Another Guide


Mack, who was the apprentice guide in the safety kayak put his life on the line to help Templer—"showing incredible bravery, risking his life to save mine – pulls his boat in inches from my face." Templer managed to grab a handle on the kayak, and "Mack dragged me to the relative safety of this rock."

Evans Was "Gone"


Templer thought Evans had swum back to the rock where the others were. But when he asked where he was Mack said, "He's gone, man, he's just gone." His body was found three days later without signs of a hippos attack. He likely drowned. "Evans did nothing wrong. The fact that he died was purely a tragedy," Templer said. 

Templer Was Severely Injured But Had to Get Off the Rock


Although Templer was out of the water and on the rock with the others, he wasn't safe. He had life-threatening injuries and needed medical attention, but the hippos were still around the area. "My left foot was especially bad; it looked as if someone had tried to beat a hole through it with a hammer."

He couldn't move his arms. One arm from the elbow down was "crushed to a pulp." In addition, he had a punctured lung and was bleeding from his mouth. 

The Pain Was So "Intense I Thought I Was Going to Die"

Hippopotamus in Kruger national park, South Africa

The group knew they had to make their move and get off the rock or Templer wasn't going to make it. He was put in a canoe and Ben paddled. The hippo kept hitting the canoe, but Templer remained calm. He described "a profound spiritual experience in which I had this incredible sense of peace and realization this was my moment of choice. Like do I go, or do I stay? Do I close my eyes and drift off, or do I fight my way through this and stick around?"

He said, "I chose to stick around, and as soon as I made that choice, it was more pain than I could ever imagine I could endure. It was so intense I thought I was going to die, and when I didn't, I kind of wished I would."

Templer Had 38 Major Bite Wounds

Direction sign for a hospital and emergency room
Spiroview Inc / Shutterstock

Templer suffered such severe injuries, it's a miracle he survived.  "I had 38 major bite wounds. My left arm from the elbow down had been crushed to a pulp," Templer told 7 News.

"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." He added, "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."

He Almost Died


It took eight hours to get Templer to the nearest hospital. Over the next few weeks, he had several major surgeries and thought he was going to lose one leg and both arms.  At one point, his surgeon didn't think he'd survive. But he pulled through and his surgeon was able to save his leg and one arm, but the other arm was beyond salvation.

Templer Was "Devastated" Over the Loss of His Arm


After waking up in the ICU, Templer realized his left hand was missing. "I just remember feeling devastated. I spent my whole life being active, and it was almost more than I could bear." But he was grateful his other limbs were saved.

He was "emotionally all over the map " and underwent physical and occupational therapy in Zimbabwe before moving to the United Kingdom. He got a prosthesis "and then just started trying to get back to life."

How the Surgeon Changed His Perspective

Paul Templer/Facebook

Templer admits he wasn't the nicest at the hospital. He lost a friend and he was close to death. Losing his arm was crushing, but "then the surgeon said something to me that changed my life," he told 7 News. "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," Paul said.

"But over time, that's sunk in, and I realize 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."

Templer Returned to the River

Paul Templer/Facebook

Templer returned to the river and faced a hippo for the last time. "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." While he had a life-altering encounter with a hippo, he doesn't want others to be fearful.

"My biggest counsel would be: Absolutely go and do it. But hook yourself up with someone who knows what they're doing out there. But by all means, go out … and experience it." Templer now spends his time as a motivational speaker sharing his inspirational survival story. 

Hippo Attacks Mostly Happen to People Living Nearby

San Diego State University/YouTube

Hippos are territorial and will kill animals like hyenas, lions, and crocodiles encroaching on their territory. But they will kill humans as well. "Most of the attacks happen in the water, but because hippos raid crops on farms, there are also attacks on people trying to protect their crops.

There are some tourists, but largely the attacks are happening to local residents," Rebecca Lewison, a conservation ecologist and associate professor at San Diego State University told CNN Traveler in an email interview.

Hippo Attacks People To Get Them the Hell Away From Them

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

She added, "Hippos attack not to eat people, but to get them the hell away from them," Lewison said. "I don't think hippos are particularly aggressive, but I think when under pressure, they attack." Lewison also noted that "Human encroachment from Africa's booming population makes matters worse, increasing the chances of deadly interactions," she said.

Hippos Are Not Predators

bad puns hippo

It may sound like hippos are aggressive towards people, but that's not the case, Lewison said. "Hippos have no interest in dealing with people. Stay away from them, and they will leave you alone. They are not hunting humans." "Do not get close to them," Muruthi said. "They don't want any intrusion. … They're not predators; it's by accident if they're injuring people."

Hippos Are Important to the Ecosystem

Hippo underwater, pygmy hippopotamus in water through glass, Khao Kheo open zoo, Thailand, animal wild life

Dr. Philip Muruthi, chief scientist and vice president of species conservation and science of the African Wildlife Fund told CNN Traveler that hippos are so vital to wildlife. "Hippos are important ecosystem engineers of the ecology of freshwater areas they inhabit. This is through nutrient recycling from dung (they consume large amounts of vegetation)."

Be Smart in Hippo Country

Aggressive hippo male attacking the car.

Staying informed and smart are ways to help avoid an attack. Do not walk along well-worn hippo paths, stay close to your group and don't approach them from behind, Muruthi said. "Follow the rules. If you are a tourist, and it says 'Stay in your vehicle,' then stay in your vehicle. And even when you're in your vehicle, don't drive it right to the animal."

Muruthi also recommended making noise to discourage hippos from coming your way. "It's good for them to know you're around." "Hippos usually come out of water late in the evening and at night to forage, so avoid trekking along the river at that time," Muruthi said. Also stay on high alert during the dry season when food is scarce.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more
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