As suggested by its Greek-derived name (hippos potamos translates as “river horse”), the hippo is an aquatic mammal most often seen partially or fully submerged in rivers, lakes and marshes. Africa’s bulkiest animal after elephants and white rhinos, hippos are actually less mobile in water than on land, where they can run at a speed of 20 mph. Hippos are probably responsible for more human deaths than any other large African mammal, not because they are carnivorous, but because their response to any perceived threat is to charge towards the safety of the water and mow down anything in their path.
Glimpsed from a distance, a hippo out of water could be mistaken for a rhino or elephant, but otherwise, it is totally unmistakable with its grey hairless hide (often tinged purple or pink with its oily sweat, which is a natural sunblock), barrel-like torso, stumpy legs and wide mouth adorned with a monstrous set of canines.
Species and subspecies: Although fossil evidence indicates that many different hippo species once inhabited the waters of Africa and Eurasia, today there are just two species, both confined to sub-Saharan Africa. These are the widespread common hippopotamus and extremely localized pygmy hippopotamus.
Where to see Hippo in Africa
Hippos can be seen in most national parks that have permanent rivers or lakes. Because their habitat is so specific, they tend to be very easy to locate where they are present. Exceptional hippo viewing can be had in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, where large numbers huddle together in suitable pools towards the end of the dry season. Other hippo hotspots include Selous (Tanzania), Murchison Falls (Uganda) and the stretch of the Zambezi flanked by Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi National Parks.
Did you know?
The common hippo occurred in suitable habitats throughout Africa and much of Europe into historic times. It is now confined to lakes and waterways in sub-Saharan Africa, where numbers are in steady but gradual decline due to human conflict. It is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, and the continental population is estimated at 120-150,000, roughly half of which is concentrated in Zambia and Tanzania. But where the long-term future of the common hippo is reasonably secure in protected areas, the pygmy hippo is listed as Endangered, with an wild population of 3,000 confined to a handful of locations in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast.
Contrary to appearances, hippos are poor swimmers, which means they are more-or-less restricted to water shallow enough to walk in. For this reason, any given pod will be seen in the same place from one day to the next, relocating only in response to water level fluctuations. As with other mammals, hippos cannot survive without air: adults resurface to breathe every 5-8 minutes, even when sleeping, while babies are born underwater and must swim to the surface to gulp their first breath.
Despite their association with rivers and lakes, hippos feed almost entirely on land, emerging in the late afternoon or by night to crop up to 100lb of grass before returning to the water in the morning.
Hippos are highly gregarious and strongly territorial. They live in pods (sometimes called schools or bloats) of between 10 and 150 individuals presided over by a dominant male who will defend his patriarchy to the death.
African wildlife foundation – https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/hippopotamus
Pygmy Hippo Foundation – http://pygmyhippofoundation.org