The Hippopotamus & Hippopotamus Behaviour

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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The Hippopotamus & Hippopotamus Behaviour


“Somebody” was once quoted in the press as having said that the hippopotamus kills more people in Africa than any other wild animal. This “fact” has been repeated again and again by the media until the general public has come to believe it. But it is not true.

Nevertheless, it is probable, in those few places in Africa where rural communities live cheek by jowl with large hippo populations that hippos do kill more humans than other wild animals do, in those communities. But this fact cannot be extrapolated to include the whole of Africa.

My own experience over the last fifty years tells me that the crocodile, without any shadow of a doubt, kills (and eats) infinitely more people than does any other species of wild animal. And that this applies ALL over Africa. A great many of these crocodile-kills are never reported, however, because the killing is not witnessed and the remains of the victims’ mutilated bodies are never found. They simply disappear. To a crocodile man is just another animal on its catholic menu.

Having said that, however, hippos DO kill lots of people.


The hippo man-killings that I have been involved with have ALL been the result of attacks following severe provocation. One day, for example, I recovered the body of a fish poacher from the Lundi River in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. My inquiries revealed that the man had tried to chase off a hippo that had invaded the river pool in which he had set his gill nets. The hippo, after trying for some time to dodge the many missiles that had been thrown at him from the bank, eventually rushed the fisherman. It caught the man as he tried to scramble back up the steep river bank. It bit him once, mauling him like a terrier worries a rat, then left the man’s body, almost severed in two, at the water’s edge.

On two other occasions young black men came across hippo bulls that had been badly injured in a fight. The animals – as happens in most such cases - were found standing in shallow rapids amongst the reeds, unmoving, waiting for time to heal their open wounds. Theirs is a diabolical situation. When they submerge their bodies in the cool and soothing waters of the river the fish gnaw away at their wounds. And when they stay out of the water for too long the oxpeckers feed on their open wounds. They endure the attentions of the birds better. These wounded animals stand in the shallow water, therefore, head hanging low, day and night, sometimes for many weeks as their wounds slowly heal. Such animals are best left well alone.

In both these cases, the youths had thrown stones at the injured animals – tormenting them terribly – trying to induce them, for some inexplicable reason, to move. Inevitably the bulls had charged the pestering young men and, in both instances, they had killed one of their number. The huge tushes on a hippo bull’s lower jaw are razor sharp. They do terrible damage to a soft human body.

The fact that I do not, for one moment, believe the hippo’s reputation as being Africa’s No.1. man-killer does not mean to say that I think hippos are not dangerous. But they are dangerous ONLY in certain situations.

Hippos are grazers and they move great distances from water, at night, when food is scarce. The cows do not take their small calves – even moderately sized calves - with them. The larger calves are left to roam near the water’s edge and the very small calves are left in reedbeds where they lie quietly awaiting their mother’s return. Hippo cows, therefore, can be very dangerous to people fishing at night – or to people camped at the river’s edge - when they return to the river pools in the middle of the night.

There are many stories telling of hippos rushing into camps in the dead of night ostensibly to stamp out the smouldering camp fires. If the truth were known, these animals were probably cow hippos that were defending their young which, the mothers knew, were lying in the nearby reedbeds awaiting their return from grazing.

Another quirk of their behaviour is that if a hippo is disturbed by man, when it is out foraging in the night, it normally does not rush back to the safety of the river – even if the water is close by. More often than not it will simply lie down quietly where it is standing and it will wait there patiently until the humans pass them by.

When I was a teenager I went out one night to shoot a hippo that had been raiding a rice paddy at Kazungula on the Zambesi. I could hear the animal quite clearly splashing through the shallow water as it slowly approached me. Then I heard it walking past me through the thicker bush beyond. But when I switched on my hunting torch the animal simply disappeared into the night. There was no sound of a hippo running off through the bush. There was no sound of it stampeding back to the river through the shallow waters of the paddy field. The only sounds I could hear were those of night birds calling in the distance and of crickets cricking in the grass.

I searched for that hippo for nearly an hour but never found it. It was as if some hippo-angel had arrived and transported the animal away from danger, in the ephemeral ether.


Years later when I was a game ranger in the Binga District of Rhodesia, I had reason to remember my Kazungula experience so many years before. A hippo had been raiding the local people’s lands near the Sebungwe Narrows of Lake Kariba. A large moon was high in the sky when the hippo came into the maize land that night and I could hear it plainly as its body swished through the young maize plants. Cautiously I stalked the animal in the moonlight hoping to get close enough to get in a good heart shot – without having to use a torch. But when I got within 100 yards of the beast the noises it had been making suddenly stopped.

I stood perfectly still for what seemed like an hour – listening intently. There was not a sound from the hippo in all that time. I tested the wind by wetting my finger in my mouth and holding it aloft. I knew then that the animal had not smelt me. It had heard me. Finally, realising that I could not stand still all night long, I began to physically search the cropland. I never found the hippo that night and I went home empty handed. I concluded that it must have very stealthily returned to the lake and that I had not heard its departure – but in my heart of hearts I knew that that was not possible. I then began to seriously contemplate the possibility of hippos having guardian angels.

Ten years later I was stationed at Chipinda Pools in the Gonarezhou National Park. I had earlier in the year culled 130 hippos in the lower reaches of the Lundi River and still had 30 to take off from the herd at Chipinda Pools itself. I was doing this slowly, by taking off two or three animals a week.

One night I left my home in the government Land Rover with the intention of taking off some hippo whilst they were out grazing. I was standing on the back of the vehicle. My ranger-assistant was driving. We set out for the station compound there to pick up our trackers. As we turned a corner in the road, just a hundred yards-or-so from the compound, we surprised two hippos walking along the road. They were bewildered by the headlights, moving jerkily from one position to another.

My ranger knew exactly what to do. He killed the engine and sat perfectly still inside the cab. I wasted no time. Leaning over the cab I place two bullets into the hippos’ brains and they dropped dead in the middle of the road. The hunt that night was over.

There followed much shouting as we explained to those in the compound what had happened. Then, satisfied that all danger had passed, the people – men, women and children - came streaming out of the compound carrying blazing paraffin Tilley lamps and torches. Very soon the whole community was standing round the two dead animals examining the carcasses – which were then lit up like a circus. This whole process took about fifteen minutes to materialise.

I left the cutting-up of the carcasses to my ranger and trackers and decided to walk the short distance back to my home. It was very dark but the narrow footpath that wound through the bush was easy follow in the starlight, so I stepped out with confidence. I hadn’t gone more than 100 yards, however, when I flushed two hippos that had been lying quietly on the pathway in front of me. They didn’t move until I was only some ten feet away. Then they rose up menacingly - but fortunately turned away and crashed off through the bushes. I stopped and listened, following their progress as they made their way down into the reed-beds. Then I heard them splash into the nearby river pool.

I looked back at the halo of bright light not far behind me. I could see the people clearly and heard every word of the conversations of those who raised their voices. And I was conscious of the fact that the two .458 shots that I had so recently fired had sounded like heavy cannon fire in the stillness of the night. Yet those two hippos had lain supine not far away - not moving – not making a sound. And they had made no attempt to even quietly make their way back to the nearby river – until I walked right on top of them.

It was then that I remembered my nocturnal hippo hunt at Kazungula so many years ago, and the crop-raiding hippo I had tried to shoot in the middle of the night at Kariba’s Sebungwe Narrows. It was at that moment that I understood this strange behavioural trait of Africa’s great river horse.

The very next year I put this knowledge to the test – and to good use. A young but mature male hippo had been visiting the tourist camping site in Kyle National Park not far from the Rhodesian town of Fort Victoria. The animal was wont to graze the watered lawns around the tourists’ tents occasionally tripping over the guy-ropes. This often resulted in a collapsed tent and a very frightened group of visitors. So it was decided to move the hippo to nearby Mushandike National Park. I was tasked with the job of the capture and the translocation.

The route the hippo took from Lake Kyle to the camping ground was up a shallow valley between huge slabs of naked granite. I stationed a number of game scouts on the lake shore some distance away from the hippo’s route and located myself 300 yards away up the valley. I kept in touch with the game scouts by radio.

Then we waited silently, listening and watching intently for some sign that would tell us the hippo was on the move.

About nine o’clock I saw the hippo ambling up the open grassland in the moonlight – grazing as he came towards me. I radioed this information back to the game scouts. Immediately, in the distance – as we had planned they should do - I heard the scouts talking loudly to each other as only Africa’s people do. Their chatter told me of their progress as they walked along the lake shore to cut off the hippo’s retreat. Once strung out behind the hippo, the scouts each climbed a tree and continued to chat amongst themselves – thereby telling the hippo they were behind it.

I continued to watch the hippo intently. And as I had predicted – in accordance with my new-found understanding of hippo behaviour - it quietly moved off into the trees to one side of the open valley. Then all sounds of its movement ceased.


Using a bright torch, I set about trying to locate the animal. This was easier said than done because in amongst the trees - sparse as they were – was a myriad of black granite bounders that each looked like a hippo lying in the grass. The minutes ticked by – stretching to half an hour. THIS time I KNEW the hippo was lying waiting for us all to depart and I did not give up. At the same time I was very conscious of the danger involved because I knew from first hand experience just what a hippo’s tushes could do to a man. I was also conscious of the attack circle phenomenon that would force the hippo to attack me should I get too close.

Finally I found my quarry. The only way I realised that the black lump lying no more than ten feet in front of me was a hippo, was because I recognised two tiny matching pale patterns in the light of my torch. They were the backs of the hippo’s ears - which are reddish-tan in colour. I also knew – then - that the hippo was facing directly away from me. Despite the fact that I was so close, and despite the fact I was playing my torch over its body, the hippo never moved. At that moment I wondered what would have happened had the hippo been lying the other way round – but I quickly put that thought out of my mind!

Slowly and quietly I climbed the sloping granite hillside that was directly behind me. Then I fired a dart into the hippo’s rump. The animal’s reaction was instantaneous. It bounced to its feet and swung round to face me. And there we stood – no more than fifteen yards apart – and plain as daylight to each other in the moonlight. Both unmoving. Both making no sound at all. And, like that, we waited each other out.

After what seemed like an eternity – but which was probably no more than ten minutes – the hippo groaned and slowly subsided onto the ground. There it lay breathing heavily and audibly as the paralysing drug I had used to immobilise it took effect. The hunt was over.

This little story is a good example that explains how hunters become “experienced”. It takes a long time and it covers many repeat performances before understanding begins to gel in the hunter’s mind. This is why “experience” can never be taught. These discoveries, however, are often achieved using many different routes. And the process is sometimes accompanied by great danger. But ALL these realities are what makes hunting such a fascinating, such an exhilarating and such a soul-absorbing sport.
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