Hippopotamus or Hippos, facts, info & images

The Greek “hippos” meaning horse and in fact these animals were once called river horses

Hippos have a barrel shaped body, short legs and a massive head with a broad muzzle. The hide is almost hairless – the mouth has an impressive set of canines and incisors and their 4-toed feet leaves a distinctive track.

The shape of their head is much like that of a frog, and allows them to keep their eyes and nostrils above the surface, while keeping the rest of their body submerged.

The hippo does not have sweat or sebaceous glands. A unique gland that produce a viscous red fluid, has led to the myth that hippos “sweat blood.” The hippo relies on water or mud to keep it cool, and it is thought that the red fluid may have a similar function.

Distribution – Habitat
Found throughout Africa – hippos are plentiful in the Zambezi and Luangwa rivers and often groups of over 60 can be seen in one spot

Feeding habits
Most of the day is spent in water or close to shore on sand or mud banks. Mainly feeding at night they can be seen foraging during the day.

They are vegetarian – plucking grass with their wide lips but are also known to eat the fruit and flowers of the sausage tree. They can consume up to 60kg of grass every night.

Mating takes place in water. The gestation period varies between 230 and 260 days when a single calf is born.

Birthing takes place on land in dense bush where the calf is suckled. Maturity is reached at 4 years

Hippos are amazingly agile for their size – they are good climbers and often negotiate steep banks to graze on grass.

The main vocalizations are a “wheeze-honk” and a roar .

Hippos swim and dive well, and their specific gravity allows them to walk along the bottom. When submerged, they seal off their slit-like nostrils and ears.

Hippopotamuses usually remain submerged for 3-5 minutes, though they can stay under for up to 30 minutes.

The large hippopotamus is an aggressive animal; old scars and fresh, deep wounds are signs of daily fights that are accompanied by much bellowing and snorting.

One of the most aggressive and threatening postures of the hippo is the huge open-mouthed “yawn” revealing its formidable teeth. With the long, razor-sharp incisors and tusk like canines, the hippo is well-armed and dangerous.

They kill more people then any other animal in Africa, mainly at night or early morning when people walk between them and their security of water

Adult males defend narrow territories which consist of water and the adjacent land.

Both sexes are very aggressive – males defending their territory may kill another hippo nearby when courting females, and females join together to protect their offspring.

In areas where overcrowding is intense, aggression increases. They have a strict territorial system within which bulls are continually fighting for dominance. Their large tusks are used as weapons of attack or defence

Image Gallery


The hippo is ranked among Africa’s mega fauna, and is only surpassed in bulk by the lephant and white rhino.
These semi-aquatic mammals are unmistakably recognisable by their gargantuan forms and singular features. Hippos are herbivores that wallow in water by day and graze
on land at night. They inhabit many of Africa’s freshwater lakes and rivers, swamps and forest streams,south of the Sahara, and are undoubtedly Africa’s reigning inland water-world heavyweights.

The hippo’s proper name is hippopotamus; derived from a combination of the two Greek words meaning ‘river horse’. The Greeks in all their learning could at best relate the hippo to a horse! More recently it was thought the hippo shares a connection with the pig –
which it resembles. But today scientists have established that it is more closely related to cetaceans, whose family includes whales, porpoises and dolphins.

Over a million years ago, hippos are believed to have lived across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. They have a link to prehistoric times through Kenyapotamus, a fossil
found in Kenya, dating 8-16 million years back. The relic belongs to an extinct precursor of the present day hippo.Rock art dated about 3000 BC art depicting hippo hunting
has been found in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain ranges of Algeria.

Relentlessly hunted by man, their numbers gradually diminished, and today, their last redoubt is in Africa. Hippos have moreover become extinct in the north of the continent, where considerable populations once thrived. They also once flourished along the River Nile, where they enjoyed the status of a deity– that offering protection in pregnancy
and childbirth

Today they are to be found only in Africa’s sub-Saharan region and in protected areas outside this region, such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and in zoos all over the globe.

Only two species of hippo live on: the Nile -found largely across the continent and the pygmy hippopotamus that lives mainly in West Africa. The Nile hippo or common hippopotamus
numbers about 157,000, and is grouped into 5 subspecies based on structural and geographical variances.

Subspecies H.a. amphibius is largely found in Tanzania and Mozambique and is the kind that once lived along the Nile up in Egypt. H.a. capensis thrives in Zambia, all the way down
south to Kruger while H.a. constrictus is found in Angola, Namibia and southern Democratic Republic of Congo. H.a.kiboko ranges between Kenya and Somalia, and the H.a. tschadensis struggles to survive in West Africa but does better in Chad.

The Nile species are easily distinguishable by their enormous size. They have a barrel-shaped torso, amazingly big head, and a wide mouth with huge canine tusks. They walk on 4 squat
legs, each having 4 webbed toes, which are so designed as to serve it well both on land and in water.

Built to enjoy the aquatic lifestyle, their eyes, ears and nostrils are set atop the head. The ears are tiny rounded organs above the eye orbits, which protrude at the top of its monstrous head. The hippo is designed in a way that keeps the essential sensory organs above water level, as the rest of its body remains submerged. When entering water they pin their nostrils shut.

An average male hippo -known as a bull, stands at 5 ft at shoulder height and 11 ft from muzzle to tail. They weigh an average of 1800 kg, though a champion weighing 3200 kg has
been recorded. An average female cow is slightly smaller in build and may weigh as much as 1500 kg at maturity. Like most mammals, females mature earlier than the males. Females
reach puberty as early as at 3 years, and attain sexual maturity at between 5-6 years of age. The males however are considered mature at about 8 years of age. Both genders
have a lifespan of 45-50 years in the wild and may live even longer in captivity.

Much is known about the common hippo, but so little is known or heard of the pygmy hippo. The pygmy species are quite shy and live in forest streams and swamps in Liberia, Sierra
Leone Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and parts of southern Nigeria.They are much smaller in size, about 5 ft long and 3 ft to the shoulder. They weigh an average 300 kg and live 30-55 years
in captivity. They are however very similar to the common hippo in many other aspects, but they do not spend as much time in water. Their skin is also much darker than their Nile cousins.

Nile hippos are brownish-grey in colour with a paler underside and a pinkish blush around their eyes, ears, nostril and mouth. Their skin is often smooth and almost hairless, except for some bristles around the muzzle area, ears and tail and scattered hairs over the body. They have short, flat, paddling tails, which they use to spread their defecation to mark domain.

Their skin is an unbelievable 1.5 inches thick, and makes up at least 1/4 of the entire body weight. The hippo’s skin secretes a viscous red-orange fluid, accounting for the myth that it sweats blood. This fluid is a marvel: playing the role of sunscreen, an antibiotic and healing agent, as well as keeping the skin moist.

Hippos neither have sebaceous glands nor do they sweat; they are therefore extremely sensitive to the sun and heat. When it gets hot- and this for the hippo is most of the day, they
take a dip in water or wallow in mud pools to keep cool. They leave the water at night, and can graze as far as 8 km away, tucking away about 70 kg of grass each night. This may sound a lot-but it is not for an animal of its body size, and it is on account of the low energy demands that go with its sedentary lifestyle.

Hippos are not very imaginative and tend to leave water and return on the same path after a grazing session. They create trenches with their massive weight, and this has over time
changed the course of many waterways.

Spending most of their time in water, these giants do all they have to do in water; they mate, give birth and even suckle their young under water. On reaching sexual maturity, cows will
accept the attention of the strongest bulls in their territory. Gestation takes 8 months. They give birth to one calf at a time, and may take another 2 years before mating again. Immediately after birth, the little calves swim to the surface for their first breath.

At birth, the little ones weigh a hefty 270 kg, and are about 2.5 ft long and stand at 1.6 ft. Amazingly, they can walk well within 5 minutes after birth. They get a lot of attention and
good care from their mothers – for hippo cows are among the best parents in the animal kingdom.

Hippos are graceful swimmers, and an adult can clock 8 km/h under water. They no doubt find the water very pleasant and relaxing and spend virtually the entire day submerged, resurfacing every 6 to 8 min to catch a breath. Hippos can be quite photogenic;

Nile hippos are gregarious beings living in groups of 15, and up to as many as 40 individuals. These groups are called schools, bloats or herds. They are governed by a supple social system
defined by hierarchy and availability of food and water. The herd is generally headed by an alpha bull, which is backed by a vanguard of other adult males. Females and their young form a crèche at the centre, behind the bulls. Young bachelor bulls form a ring, called a refuge, around the crèche in preparation for a position on the frontline someday.

Hippos communicate with each other both in and out of water in pitches not easily picked up by the human ear. In audible sounds, they wheeze and honk; at other times they will gesture with a yawn, by shaking of the head or by ladling water. Whenever a hippo does its customary yawn, take this as a gesture of aggression.

Hippos look quite friendly and cuddly; at other times they appear flabby and lazy. But do not be deceived: they are quite aggressive and have been known to kill more humans on encounter than any other wild animal. You are advised not to put your running skills to the
test against a hippo, for they easily outrun humans irrespective of their bulk. They can maintain a running speed of up to 50 km/h for a few hundred meters with ease.

The cause of their aggression is attributed to their territorial nature, particularly in water. When they feel threatened, their young endangered or their livelihood encroached, they become extremely aggressive. To be fair, this kind of hostility is not only directed towards humans and other animals, but also against their own kind. Cows can be pretty belligerent and while defending their young have been known to fight and kill bulls much bigger
than themselves.

Aggressive behaviour can come out in male hippos on the onset of the mating season. During these times fighting gets quite brutal, though rarely fatal. They don’t fight to kill but rather try out their strength to prove their masculinity. The winners’ prize is the chance to propagate his genes. The loser usually lives to try his chances in the next season; but not without numerous lacerations, a few broken bones and a wounded ego. At other times males fight for territorial control, and the winner dominates the area.

In times of catastrophe such as droughts or when overpopulation sets in, social hierarchies become dysfunctional, bringing out the worst in hippos. Many other African hippos have also displayed anomalous, unpredictable behaviour, but cannibalism among herbivores is a bizarre happening.

In 1928, a hippo named Huberta from Zululand, inspired by some strange whim, left her lagoon and embarked on a great southwards trek. She attracted worldwide attention, and much admiration and was declared Royal Game- not to be captured or hunted. She reached
East London in 1931, having trekked 1600 km and crossed 122 rivers. She was eventually shot by 3 hunters who were ignorant of her celebrity status.

Another hippo that took the international media by storm was a baby hippo that was displaced by the December 2004 Tsunami. Named Owen after his rescuer, the 1-year old hippo was taken to Haller Park, a nature sanctuary close to Mombasa in Kenya. On arrival at the
park, Owen immediately befriended a 130 years old–Aldabran tortoise known as Mzee –‘old man’ in Swahili.

The unlikely and true friendship of Owen and Mzee inspired 6-year-old Isabella Hatkoff to write a story about it. With the help of her father Craig Hatkoff, park director Dr. Paula Kahumbu and Peter Greste, her effort eventually resulted in 3 books: Owen & Mzee: The True Story Of A Remarkable Friendship; Owen & Mzee: Language Of Friendship, and Owen And Mzee: Best Friends. A fourth one, Owen And Mzee: Friends Forever is planned.

Hippos in the wild continue to face challenges that threaten their very existence. Loss of habitat continues to bite hard as land is taken up for development and cultivation. Conflict has
arisen with farmers and fishermen who kill the animals to reduce competition for resources. Hunting of hippos is also common, especially for their ivory teeth-, which fetch a pretty price in the wake of the trade ban imposed on elephant ivory.

The animal is also hunted for its meat and skin by locals, and is pursued as trophy by big game hunters and collectors. The hippo was in 1995 listed on CITES Appendix II to keep a check on the trade in hippo products. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 2006 alerted the world that the common hippopotamus is in serious danger of extinction, and placed it on the IUCN Red List.

The common hippo can be seen in many game parks and reserves throughout Africa. at the Mara and Talek Rivers in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Other good hippo spots include: Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania, Queen Elizabeth National Park –Uganda, Okavango Delta
and Chobe River –Botswana, and Kruger National Park – South Africa. The largest hippo population in Africa can however be found in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley.

For Tour Enquiries o/h g.m.t. +2
Phone Us – +27 31 776 3757