We stopped for sundowners at one of my favourite spots after another exciting safari. A section of the river where a natural pool forms, a firm favourite for our hippos. As King and I unpack the drinks and snacks I listen to the conversation forming between our guests. I can’t help but giggle at the word “cute” being used in the same sentence as “Hippos”.
I realize quickly that the danger of this animal is easily overlooked as they go about their business in the water. Hippos can, in fact, be extremely dangerous. Many people are killed in Africa every year by these “not always so cute” creatures. They are powerful creatures and should favorite with immense respect!
The golden rule regarding hippos: Never get in between them and the water. They will react aggressively as they feel out of their comfort zone on land. Don’t think that you will outrun them though as their charging speed is around 36 km/hour on land. Hippos spend most of the day in water saving a great deal of energy and protecting themselves against the sun. Their barrel-like bodies are buoyed up by the water and therefore they don’t have to eat as much as expected. A mere 1.5% of their total body weight will do, only between 15 – 40 kg of grass in a night. Large mammals usually have to eat closer to 5% of their body weight to satisfy their nutrient requirements.
They leave the water late afternoon and forages alone throughout the night. Generally, they don’t stray more than 2 km from the water, but during times of drought or less availability of food can travel up to 15km from the water in one night. They also have a unique skin. The fine epidermis renders the skin sensitive to dehydration. If they would be exposed to excessive sun they react firstly by secreting a red fluid from mucous glands on the skin (not blood) that acts as sunscreen and thereafter the skin will dry and crack.
Regarding their social structure hippos practice a harem system. Bulls occupy territories that contain females and their young, typically 7 to 15 in a pod. The males are especially aggressive and don’t tolerate one another, people or even small boats in their territory. Dominant Bulls display their dominance by opening their mouths, thus showing their formidable canine teeth to whomever they see as a threat. The iconic honking of hippo bulls also serves as a means of advertising their territory. Hippos do however produce growls, grunts, and squeals, fulfilling an array of social uses.
They are often mistaken for rocks until they move as only their eyes, ears and nostrils can be seen sticking out, keeping their heat-sensitive bodies submerged. They can remain fully submerged for 5 – 6 minutes causing this massive animal to disappear. They walk on the bottom and do not swim, popping up sometimes when one least expects it!
Hippos are thus better left alone and viewed safely from a distance.
Till next Time