7 amazing facts about hippos

Discover fascinating facts about hippos

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

 

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1

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.

2

Ancient 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.

3

How much food do hippos eat?

Male hippos weigh 1,600–3,200kg, and females 650–2,350kg. 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
4

Can hippos swim?

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

5

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
6

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.

7

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.