Every sighting of a hippo is an absolute thrill. They have that huge 1.5 ton body on short, stubby legs, topped by a bulbous face with little eyes and tiny ears. Zambia, located in the central lower third of Africa, is home to the world’s largest population of wild hippos.
Found only in Africa, hippopotamus live in rivers, lakes, and swamps throughout the sub-Saharan countries. There are three major rivers in Zambia, and many sources of fresh water.
Poached for their meat and ivory teeth, hippo populations are steadily declining, and their conservation status is now listed as Vulnerable. See maps below.
Unlike many African mammals with fur hides, hippos have no fur and very little hair. They therefore spend much time under water or in mud, to protect their skin from drying out under the harsh African sun. They also secrete acidic compounds that act as a sunscreen, but they are not enough to prevent their skin from cracking.
Hippopotamus amphibious. The name itself indicates amphibious qualities of living on land and in water. The Greek translation: river horse.
With nostrils, eyes, and ears situated high on the skull, they can continue breathing while staying under water. They can also close their nostrils under water and remain submerged for many minutes. I like to listen when they come up from under water; they take a breath of air, just like us humans, and whales.
Their closest living relative, in fact, is the whale, cetaceans.
Hippos can walk on the river bottom; and they sleep, mate, and give birth in the water, too.
Being the third largest land mammal on earth (after the elephant and rhinoceros), they look like they’re not very fast animals. But they can run swiftly for short distances, clocked at 19 mph (30 km/h)…and are aggressive animals.
A typical day for a hippopotamus is to remain in the water during the hottest hours, then come out when it is cooler, to feed. During the day you’ll find them in and around water, grunting a lot, wallowing, and sleeping. Every once in awhile one will do a 360 degree barrel roll, to moisten any exposed skin.
Then at day’s end when temperatures have cooled, they come onto land to graze.
Hip-hippo-hooray for yet another incredible creature on earth.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander
Conservation organization for hippos: African Wildlife Foundation