Hippo guide: species facts and the best places to see in the wild

The second largest animal on land after the elephant, the Hippopotamus or hippo is a fascinating species which is most powerful – and dangerous in water. Find out more about hippos in our expert guide, including species facts and where to see in the wild.

Hippo calves are not weened for about six months. © Brent Stirton/Staff/Getty

Learn more about hippopotamus or hippos as they are more commonly known, including how much they weight, how fast they can run on land and where to see in the wild – and stay safe from an attack.

How much does a hippo weigh?

Hippopotamus are the second largest land animal after the elephant. Male hippos weigh 1,600–3,200kg, and females 650–2,350kg.

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How much food do hippos eat?

Despite their size they eat just 1–1.5 per cent of their body weight every day.

Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Hippopotamus in Chobe National Park, Botswana. © Lost Horizon Images/Getty

Can hippos swim?

Hippos sink in water. They run along the river bottom instead of swimming.

How fast can a hippo run?

A hippo can match the speed of a human on land, but only for short distances. They are much faster – and more dangerous in water.

What noise does a hippo make?

Hippos tend to grunt, growl and moan, but can also make a roaring ‘chuffing’ s0und. In large groups, the noise can reach up to 115 decibels!

What is a group of hippos called?

A group of hipppos can be called a bloat, pod or herd.

How dangerous are hippos?

The hippopotamus is a very aggressive wild creature and is the deadliest large land mammal on the planet. It is estimated that hippo attacks kill 500 people each year in Africa. It is not only their size and weight that makes them dangerous, but also their very sharp teeth!

How do hippos claim their territory?

When defecating, hippos swish their tails back and forth, scattering their droppings like a muck-spreader. The resulting slapping noise echoes downstream and helps proclaim territory.

What is the history of hippos in Britain?

Hippos, along with other megafauna such as lions and elephants, would have been a common sight in prehistoric Britain – their remains have been found underneath Trafalgar Square.

Are hippos at risk from poaching?

The international ban on trade in elephant ivory led to an increase of 530 per cent in the annual export of hippo teeth within two years. The animal’s canines measure upwards of 50cm in length.

Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
Hippos have huge teeth! © nattanan726/Getty

Do hippos have more than one stomach like cows?

A hippo’s stomach has four chambers in which enzymes break down the tough cellulose in the grass that it eats. However, hippos do not chew the cud, so are not true ruminants like antelopes and cattle.


Can hippos be tamed?

A wild hippo named ‘Jessica’ often visits (and wanders into) the waterside home of South Africa’s Tonie and Shirley Joubert, who helped her out as a calf. But this is very much the exception rather than the rule – hippos are one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet.

Hippo in Chobe National Park
Hippo in Chobe National Park, Botswana. © Winfried Wisniewski/Getty

How to avoid a hippo attack

Walking through the African bush in the dry season could bring you face to face with a hippopotamus. Here’s how to avoid a potentially dangerous and even fatal encounter.

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.

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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.

Hippo safety advice:

  • 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.