Walking through the African bush in the dry season could bring you face to face with a hippopotamus. John Coppinger explains how to avoid a potentially dangerous and even fatal encounter.
In my experience, the commonly heard claim that hippos are responsible for more attacks on humans than any other dangerous animal in Africa is a complete myth. The Luangwa Valley has the densest population of hippos in Africa, yet after half a lifetime here, I am aware of only two instances of serious human injuries being caused by hippos.
While there are few attacks, it would be folly to assume that these animals are not dangerous. Hippos are large and powerful, and despite being herbivores, are armed with long, lethal teeth that are designed for battle. I have seen a hippo kill a large crocodile with a single bite, and a human would offer little to no resistance if a hippo was to become aggressive.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
It is therefore vital to avoid inciting an attack in the first place, whether on land or on the water (in a boat or canoe). Hippos that are not stressed are generally placid creatures and are not a threat, especially if given enough space and sufficiently deep water in which to submerge themselves.
However, late in the dry season when water levels are low and food supplies limited, hippos are more inclined to be aggressive. Vicious fights break out between rival males in their bid for suitable river space, and the losers are often ousted from the river.
They skulk under thickets during the day and are liable to attack if approached too closely. One dangerous aspect of hippo behaviour is their unpredictability. With experience, most animals’ reactions can be forecast with a certain degree of accuracy, but in my opinion hippos are not endowed with a great deal of intelligence. Even they are not sure what their next move will be.
Clapping your hands, waving your arms or shouting is likely to have no effect on a charging hippo. Your only hope is to seek immediate refuge behind or up a tree or behind a termite mound.
JOHN’S TOP TIPS
- If you’re in a canoe, allow hippos plenty of space. Avoid rivers where numbers are concentrated.
- Tap the side of the boat to signal your position so hippos do not come up beneath you.
- Keep your distance when on foot. Avoid thickets where hippos may be skulking.
- Listen out for oxpecker calls – a warning sign that there may be a hippo around.
- As a last resort, use a tree or termite mound as cover.
If you enjoyed this, why not read the previous part or the next part - How to avoid a leopard attack?
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