I experienced my first wild hippo at night in the dark. I was lying on my cot inside the tent; our group was camped beside a river. I heard a terrifying grunting sound outside, had no idea what it was. I also heard a great deal of splashing in the water. Although I hardly slept that night, I did survive; when I asked our guide at breakfast the next morning about the racket, he confirmed that it was a pod of hippos.
Hippopotamus amphibius are found in sub-Saharan Africa, and live primarily in water. Although they eat on land, they spend most of their time in the water, including mating and birthing. Water is important to the hippo due to their thin, hairless skin. To prevent overheating and dehydration, hippos wallow in water or mud for most of their lives. Their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion. In fact, they can sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking.
An aggressive and huge animal, they don’t have many predators. Male hippos weigh 3,500-4,000 pounds, with older males sometimes reaching 6,000-7,000 pounds. The only land mammals bigger than hippos are rhinoceros and elephants. Occasionally crocodiles will snap up a baby hippo, but for the most part, the hippos rule the water. They are, unfortunately, hunted by humans, their biggest predator, and their conservation status is listed as vulnerable.
With their enormous weight supported on short stubby legs, you might think they are slow and lethargic. But they’re not. They are actually quite agile and easily outrun humans at 18 mph.
I’ve been in motorless boats in the water with hippos, wondering if I was in danger. (This seems to be the way a lot when on safari.) We often see locals in the rivers fishing beside hippos, too. There are conflicts, I’ve been told, between humans and hippos. It’s not like living with rattlers, where if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Hippos will bother you. If they don’t like you, they’ll come after you. That’s why when I’m in that motorless boat, I try to keep a friendly smile at all times.
Hippos are not especially good swimmers though, their speed is on land. They come on land to eat, their diet consisting mostly of grass, but also aquatic plants and plant materials like this fruit from the “sausage” tree in Zambia.
I know Americans who collect hippos. They acquire hippopotamus figurines in all sizes, fill their shelves with cute little hippos. This strikes me as hilarious, because hippos are so muddy and gargantuan and ill-tempered. Moreover, if you saw what hippos do with their droppings, this hippo-collecting would strike you as funny too. For territorial purposes, while defecating and/or urinating, they spin their tail and use it as a paddle and, in windshield wiper-fashion, slap and disperse their excrement in every direction.
I guess my favorite thing about hippopotami are seeing them lazing about in shallow water. They congregate in groups of a dozen or more, socializing in close proximity, sometimes even resting their head on their neighbor. They grunt and bellow, splash water, and every few minutes one may turn its burly body over to get the other side wet. Egrets stand on their backs, lift off when the hippo rolls.
They’re muddy, poopy, aggressive and huge, but somehow I find them soothing…as long as I have a safe distance.