Whilst most people see the Hippopotamus as a giant and docile creature, the reality could not be more different. Named one of the world’s deadliest animals, the hippo is not an animal you’d want to get up close with. What is it that makes these enormous creatures so aggressive? And more importantly, what do you do if you come across one in the wild? Here are some insights into why are hippos so aggressive.
Why are hippos so aggressive?
For many years hippos have had to adjust to frequent human visitors, changes in territory and changes in habitat. However, Hippo attacks had been documented for many years before the tourist explosion took place in Africa.
Hippos are known for being highly territorial animals. It is this territorial behaviour that is causing so many aggressive outbursts in the hippo population. With fewer watering areas for the animals that call Africa home, hippos are finding themselves having to defend their territory against various opponents.
For example, humans are now travelling more frequently by boat in hippo habited areas. This is when Hippos are most dangerous to humans since it is almost impossible to see them under the water. The hippos see these humans as intruders into their territory; therefore, they attempt to defend themselves. Unfortunately, this results in a large number of human fatalities every year. It is estimated that in Lake Naivasha in 2020 alone, there were 40 hippo attacks which resulted in the death of 14 people.
Shockingly, there have even been multiple accounts of hippos killing their own offspring. In the case of males, it seemed to be a case of fighting for dominance. It can also be a case that the male intended to mate with the calf’s mother. When rejected by the mother, he killed the calf to get what he wanted.
With female hippos, it can be more complicated. If a mother hippo feels the environment is unsuitable for raising her young, she may murder her calf. There are also reports of mothers who have experienced a traumatic or unusual birth and have gone on to kill their calf in response to the events.
In circumstances where a hippo has attacked an animal of another species, it can also be marked down as territorial behaviour. Mother hippos will also attack and kill other animals if she feels their young is in danger.
How big are hippos?
Hippos are the most dangerous land mammals in the world. Their name comes from the Greek word meaning “water” or “river horses”. Sharing their habitat with some of the other most dangerous animals on this planet, how have hippos maintained such dominance in their natural habitat? The answer is simple: their size.
An adult male hippo can weigh up to 4490 kg (9,900 lbs)! Their giant size, sharp teeth, and territorial behaviour make them a terrifying opponent for even the boldest lions and crocodiles.
What animals do hippos kill?
Aside from humans, hippos are known to attack lions, hyenas, and, most commonly, crocodiles. These animals are the most frequent victims of hippo attacks because of their shared territory. A hippo will defend itself against lions and hyenas, even killing another animal if needed. They use their large teeth and high body weight to kill other animals. A mother hippo would think nothing of attacking a lion if it means protecting her calf.
In desperate times, lions and hyenas will attempt to hunt an adult hippo. However, they are rarely successful due to the hippo’s enormous body mass and giant teeth. Since they are also very territorial animals, an adult hippo will not hesitate when attacking an intruder.
The animal hippos kill the most is the crocodile. They share the same territory more often than lions and hyenas. Crocodiles will often try to snatch hippo calves with their powerful jaws, which means hippos have more of a reason to be defensive around them.
Related Article Hippo vs Crocodile Who Would Win In A Fight?
How dangerous are hippos to humans?
When asked what the most dangerous animal to humans is, most people would guess wolves, lions, tigers or bears. Not many people would place hippos high up on that list, let alone at the top. The reality is hippos are one of the most deadly animals to humans. Five hundred hippo-related deaths are recorded every single year. For comparison, in 2021, just seventy-three shark-related human casualties were recorded.
Hippos are so dangerous to humans because of their territorial nature and tendency to capsize boats. Humans coming across hippos in the wild will generally be aboard reasonably small boats making it easy for the hippos to capsize and kill them. When under the water, hippos are almost invisible to humans aboard these boats; therefore, hippo attacks are usually a surprise. It is common for hippos to charge boats when they spot them in the water.
Most hippos can run at just over 20 mph, making it difficult for people to get away from them quickly enough. Their large teeth measure up to 40cm in length, making them easy to injure or kill a human. These teeth are also incredibly sharp, with many local people having witnessed hippos impaling adult humans with them.
During the night, hippos will roam far away from the waterside habitat they frequent during the day. Hippos roam freely during the night in search of food however, this free-roaming can be deadly for villagers. If a hippo spots you in the darkness it will likely feel threatened and attack.
Male hippos can weigh up to 1,500kg meaning their sheer size makes them no match for anything standing in their way. Sometimes tourists are unaware of the hippo’s territorial behaviour, endangering their entire tour group and the locals leading the groups. Strict safety talks are usually given on any African river trips or safaris to warn tourists of the hippo’s potentially aggressive nature.
How can you avoid a hippo attack?
A laughing or yawning hippo is a dangerous hippo. If you see a hippo continuously opening its mouth as if yawning, stay away or, better still, leave the area. This is one of the first signs that a hippo is thinking about attacking something or someone. If you are observing hippos, it is best to keep an eye on them for any signs that they might charge or attack you.
Never get between a hippo and the water. The hippo will view this as a person encroaching on their territory and possibly will attack you. It is best to observe hippos from a safe distance and not to approach the water.
If you are in the water and realise there are hippos nearby, move in the opposite direction of where the hippos are. Do so calmly and slowly; then, the hippos should leave you alone. They would only view you are a threat if you are loud, panicking or moving quickly.
If you are on land and a hippo decides to attack you, seek shelter. Hide behind trees, vehicles, buildings or rocks. This will hopefully protect you enough to be able to escape. You will not be able to outrun a hippo, but running in a zig-zag can make it difficult for them to follow you.
If it is possible, avoid visiting hippos during mating season. They are much more territorial and aggressive, making any potential encounter extremely dangerous. It is also better to avoid female hippos with their calves. Mothers will stop at nothing to protect their babies from potential threats. A mother hippo with her calf would almost definitely attack a human or animal who came near them.
Did you know that hippos don’t swim? They use the bottom of rivers to propel themselves along the water instead. For this reason, it is better to avoid shallow waters. Hiding and escaping from a hippo in deeper waters is much easier. Local people advise diving under the water and carefully swimming to a further away shore to escape a hippo. If you dive under the water, hippos often cannot see you.
Make yourself known to any nearby hippos. If you surprise a hippo, it will almost certainly attack you immediately. If you are swimming in waters where you think a hippo is under the water, gently pat the surface of the water. Doing this will alert the hippos to your presence and hopefully allow you enough time to get to safety.
If you are in a place where wild hippos live and want to avoid an encounter, ask the locals for help. Due to the dangerous nature of these animals, local villagers will usually record sightings to avoid an encounter. They will also be able to help you identify the footprints and droppings of a hippo to avoid entering hippo territory.
If a hippo capsizes a boat that you are in, dive under the water. Stay under the water and swim as quietly as possible to a faraway shore. Minimise your movement in the water, and do not splash. If you appear to move less, a hippo is less likely to see you as a threat and attack.
Are hippos carnivorous?
The giant incisors of a hippopotamus would indicate that they are strict meat eaters. However, hippos are not carnivorous. Most hippos will enjoy a herbivore diet of short grass and fruit if they can find it. Their large jaw grinds up plants making them easy to swallow and digest.
Whilst the majority of hippos will enjoy a herbivore diet, there have been reports of hippos eating the meat of deceased animals and even their own calves. This seems to occur when their regular food sources are scarce and is not regarded as a regular behaviour for hippos.
The average hippo consumes up to 1.5% of its body weight every single night. They have been known to roam for a mile outside of their usual watering hole to find food in the night and have a good sense of smell to help find food.
Hippos eat a relatively small amount in comparison with other mammals. A cow, for example, eats up to 2.5% of its body weight per day. The hippo manages this by living a reasonably inactive lifestyle until they are eating. This conservation of energy allows them to survive with much less food. When a mother has her baby, she will remain in the water for several days without eating until she feels her calf is strong enough for her to go to the edge of the water to graze at night.
Threats to hippos
Whilst hippos are a considerable threat to any humans or other animals they encounter, the most significant danger to hippos is habitat destruction and the ivory trade. They are currently classed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List. However, there are currently no organisations dedicated to maintaining the wild hippo population.
National parks in Africa are offering to safeguard the hippopotamus population, helping maintain the current population. One of the biggest threats to the population is the illegal ivory trade. Hippos living in national parks have the most protection against illegal poaching.
Other than humans, adult hippos have very few natural predators. The biggest natural threat to the hippo population is actually when calves are hunted by lions, hyenas and crocodiles. Most of the time a mother hippo can defend her calf however, there is always the exception where her calf ends up as another animal’s next meal. This is the harsh reality of wild animals in Africa.