Picture this … Two tourists climb into a boat with a guide and as they glide upstream the guide tells them that if they are confronted by an aggressive hippopotamus they mustn’t even think of abandoning the boat and jumping overboard into the water. Yeah right! We’ve heard lots of scare stories that tour guides dish out to wide-eyed tourists visiting Africa for the first time. As seasoned South African travelers, we figured this was a good line to use with foreigners – gets them a bit edgy and expecting some adventure where there is none. Well, how wrong we were …
We took a tour on the Kwando River in the Caprivi with a birding guide. Expecting to see some great birds and perhaps the odd buck or elephant at the water’s edge, we really sniggered when our guide gave us the line about the aggressive hippos. About two kilometers upstream, in water that was less than a meter deep, we came across a pod of about seventeen hippos wallowing in the shallow river (see the photo below). The guide stopped a fair way off and dramatically whispered to us that we should be quiet so as not to upset them. Whilst we were taking photos, one rose halfway out of the water and started to charge towards our boat! It was a heart-stopping moment seeing this enormous hippo running effortlessly along the bottom of the river and rapidly gaining ground on us. Our guide quickly put the boat into reverse and took us out of harm’s way. Okay, so we won’t be such cynics in future.
Never mind all the stories you’ve read or heard about dangerous animals and the Big Five – hippos are considered amongst the most dangerous animals on the continent. Whilst they are not meat eaters and so won’t eat a human, they are extremely aggressive and if they catch anyone between them and the water, the human has little chance of surviving an attack. If the victim is not trampled to death, the hippo’s powerful jaws and gigantic teeth will make short work of them.
Male hippos are only territorial in water, where they lay claim to certain stretches of rivers or lakes and protect up to twenty-five females. They are agile both in the water and on land. Being herbivores, they are solitary feeders, eating short grass found alongside rivers – mainly at night after dusk. They do all their socializing in the water and mud, which is where they prefer to remain during the day in order to keep cool. They can also be found sleeping on riverbanks during the day. Hippos don’t have sweat glands, but are said to sweat blood because they secrete a red fluid which is thought to help keep them cool. No-one is quite certain what the purpose of this fluid is, but it also flows in large amounts when they are excited.
These huge mammals can weigh between one and a half to three and a half thousand kilograms, with males being substantially heavier than females. Like crocodiles, their eyes, ears and nostrils are situated on the top of their skulls, enabling them to remain mostly underwater and thereby preventing sunburn. They aren’t able to stay completely submerged for longer than about six minutes without having to come up for air. Youngsters can hold their breath for less than a minute. Talking of youngsters, the gestation period for a hippo is two hundred and forty days.
Hippos are preyed upon by lions and crocodiles, but their main predators are humans, who hunt them for the ivory from their teeth and for their meat. Young hippos also have to be protected against their own kind, as male hippos are known to kill them in the water. If you’d like to read some interesting facts about hippos, click here.
And so I end this little blog off with a moral – do listen when a tour guide tells you a scare story – sometimes what he says really is genuine and not just a story to add a bit of adrenaline to the outing – you just have to be astute enough to sort the wheat from the chaff.