Hippos of Zambia


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.

Zambia hippos at river, Luangwa Valley

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

Hippopotamus, Botswana

Hippo hanging out with two bird species: the heron, and the oxpeckers on his back. Zambia, Luangwa Valley

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

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.

Hippo luxuriating in mud

Hippopotamus amphibious. The name itself indicates amphibious qualities of living on land and in water. The Greek translation: river horse.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia


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.

Hippo family


Wikipedia Hippopotamus


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.

Scraped from fights, and sporting an oxpecker (bird) on its back

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.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, hippos and cattle egrets


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


Hippo distribution.gif

Range map African hippopotamus. Red=Historic range, Green=2008 populations. Courtesy Wikipedia

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Zambia, Luangwa Valley


Sandy Hippopotamus

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

The world’s largest population of hippos live in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, Africa.  They love the water, which is why they are so abundant in the Luangwa Valley.  The Luangwa River is one of the biggest unaltered rivers in southern Africa.


Hippopotamus amphibius  need water deep enough to cover them.  Their thin, naked skin is vulnerable to overheating and dehydration; they submerge to protect their skin and stay cool.  Their eyes, ears, and nostrils are positioned high in the skull so that they can remain submerged for long periods.


Usually one sees wild hippos in the water.  But they are semiaquatic mammals, meaning they live in both water and on land.  Their diet is grass, so they also require pasture areas not far from water.  They graze for about five hours, then return to water beds to spend the day digesting and socializing.


We found this handsome hippo one morning at dawn, while heading out in the jeep.  It was unusual to see him resting in sand, but he still found a shady, cool spot.  He was fine with us interrupting his rest, as long as we stayed in the vehicle.  And we were fine with him glaring at us, as long as he didn’t charge.  I love it when we all get along.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Hippo, Zambia

Hippo, Zambia

Although they can be swift on land, the gargantuan body of Hippopotamus amphibius is designed for water.  The short legs don’t get in the way when they are wallowing in the mud and shallow water.  They can also sink their barrel-shaped bodies and walk along the river floor.


Hippos mate and give birth in the water.  Even their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion.  They sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking.  For this semi-aquatic mammal with thin, hairless skin, the water prevents overheating and dehydration under the hot African sun.


There are some species of hippo that have become extinct, but there are still populations of hippos in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Tanzania and Zambia.  Their conservation status is delicate, listed as Vulnerable Threatened.



Eating the fruit of a sausage tree

In the early 20th century hippos were considered close in ancestry to the pig.  They roll around in mud and grunt like a pig, and there is a physical resemblance as well.  But further studies of their DNA and fossil records classified them in the whale family.  I have spent many glorious hours observing hippos on land and in water, and the water is where they luxuriate.


You wouldn’t think hippopotamus are fast when you see their short, stubby legs carrying over 3,000 pounds of body mass; yet they can outrun humans at 19 mph.  Hippos are not only fast, but they are aggressive, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous.   I have watched more than one wildlife guide shudder as they relay the story of a distant cousin, friend, or relative who was killed by a hippoThe hippo is responsible for more human deaths than any other mammal in Africa. 


In their territory, pods of hippos are commonly seen during the day where they rest together at a mud hole, lake or in rivers.  Watching one roll over like a beached whale to moisten its back is one of the most beautiful slow dances I have ever seen.  The first time I observed this action I thought there was a fight brewing, so much splashing and abrupt activity.  But it was never a fight, it was simply one colossal hippo turning over resulting in muddy water ripples and sloshes.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Happy with Hippos



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.   


HippoAn 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. 


Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

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.