Obaysch, photographed by Frederick York, circa 1870. The first hippopotamus at ZSL London Zoo

by Ann Sylph on

Obaysch was captured near an island in the Nile from which he took his name. After wintering in Cairo, where it is said he occasioned a noticeable shortage of milk, he arrived in London on 25 May 1850, thus becoming the first hippo to reach Europe’s shores since the days of the Roman Empire.

Despite lacking the engaging appearance and nature normally associated with Zoo stars, he quickly became the rage of London. Queen Victoria inspected him shortly after his arrival and, somewhat strangely, compared his swimming to that of a porpoise.

Black and white historic photograph of Obaysch the first hippopotamus at ZSL London Zoo. In the York Album of photographs
Black and white historic photograph of Obaysch the first hippopotamus at ZSL London Zoo. In the York Album of photographs

In 1854, a female, Adhela, joined him and it was hoped that they might breed. She, in common with many female hippos, was the dominant partner of the pair.

Obaysch, however cowed he may have been by his mate, was very ferocious with human beings. In 1860 he escaped from the hippo enclosure. The solution adopted by the newly appointed Superintendent, Abraham Dee Bartlett, was simple. He induced a keeper the hippo particularly hated to show himself to Obaysch and then run back into the enclosure and up a ladder out of harm’s way. The hippo followed him in the gate was slammed behind him.

In 1871, Obaysch fathered London Zoo’s first baby hippo. It did not survive. But in 1872, two more were born and the second of these, named Guy Fawkes because of its birthday (although subsequently discovered to be a female), became the first captive-bred hippo to be reared by its mother. Obaysch died in 1878, while his hardly less popular daughter survived until 1908.

The photograph of Obaysch was taken by Frederick York in the 1870's.

Today there are an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 hippos remaining throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, of which Zambia (40,000) and Tanzania (20,000-30,000) have the largest populations. They are still threatened by poaching for their meat and ivory canine teeth, and by habitat loss.

‘Victorian England’s Hippomania’ by Nina Root in Natural History 1993, Vol. 102, (2), pp.34-39

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.