Safeguard Your Hippo Encounter

Hippos at iSimangaliso Wetland Park

How Not To Stir A Hippo’s Inner Beast

Hippos are fascinating animals to observe in their natural habitat but it’s always best to try not to stir their inner beast so here we offer some top tips on how to remain friends on your hippo encounter. Additionally, we have listed some ideal safari lodges and camps from which you can safely experience the animal the Greeks named ‘The River Horse’.

Often referred to as ‘the most dangerous large land animal in Africa’ and as being responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal, a hippopotamus’s reputation usually precedes it. But when you spot them (or more worryingly don’t) trundling along under the water with just their submarine-like eyes and ears poking out it is easy to wonder what all the fuss is about and to let your guard down around these slightly goofy looking plump creatures.

Resting Hippos at iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Hippo pod on the Zambezi River. Photo credit to Ann Lewinsky Photography

Here’s how to stay safe while hippo-spotting:

1) Respect the hippos’ space in water

Hippos are territorial and become aggressive when they feel threatened, so respect their space. Keep on their good side by giving them a wide berth when you spot them in the water. Don’t mistake a hippo’s ‘yawn’ for laziness, it is actually a warning sign that you are getting too close and you should move away.

As a defensive tactic, hippos prefer to stick to areas where the water is deep enough for them to fully submerge. If a hippo is forced to occupy shallow water due to drought or territorial disputes with other hippos, it will feel vulnerable and lash out with little provocation.

Hippos are herbivores and do not regard humans as prey. However, they become aggressive when startled. When you spot a hippo, announce your presence while you are still well away from it. Beat the side of your boat with your hand or strike the water’s surface a few times with a paddle.

Hippos on the Zambezi

Resting hippos at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

2) Avoid hippos on land

Allow yourself a wide range of vision so that you can spot any hippos in the area long before you reach them. Give the hippos the same opportunity to spot you from a safe distance. Remember that hippos are easily startled, but will show little interest in you if they see that you are maintaining a respectful distance.

When you encounter a hippo on land, always allow it a clear path to the water. Even if you maintain a respectful distance without posing a threat to the hippo, anticipate that some other factor may startle it at any time. Expect it to flee for the safety of the water and keep well out of its path.

Hippos use their faeces to mark paths between waterways and food sources inland. Expect these paths to be travelled continuously, especially at night. Look for dung that has been sprayed over a wide area, rather than a neat pile, since hippos use their tails to spread their poop around as they excrete.

If a hippo charges you, be aware that hippos can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour (45 kph). Seek cover immediately. If no buildings or vehicles are in sight, use natural cover and obstacles like trees, rocks, hills, and termite mounds to slow the hippo’s momentum.

Hippos on the Zambezi

Hippo on the Zambezi River. Photo credit to Ann Lewinsky Photography

3) Anticipating hippos’ habits

During mating season males are especially dangerous and you should expect them to already be aggressive due to fierce competition between themselves for mates. Hippos typically mate at the start of the rainy season, but may do so at other times of the year as well. Always be on the lookout for males fighting each other to the death, which is a contest for breeding rights to a female.

Expect hippos to act even more territorial as waterways shrink in size during the drier months. Look for hippos crowding closer toward the middle of the waterway to remain submerged. Also be aware that their food sources have most likely dried up as well at this time of the year, which will further agitate them.

Hippos are nocturnal. During the day, expect to see them resting in the water to stay cool. At night, travel carefully, because hippos will leave the water to seek out food on land.

You should never interact with a hippo calf no matter how cute they may look or how tempting it may be. Mother Hippos are ferociously protective of their young and will readily come to their defence if they feel that their young are threatened in any way.

Hippos on the Zambezi

Hippo Calf on the Zambezi River. Photo credit to Ann Lewinsky Photography

Remember, when you are on your next safari, there is no need to fear these rotund creatures. Any well established and respected safari lodge will offer drives accompanied by an experienced guide who know exactly how to deal with an encounter. So rather embrace the hippo in all their flabby, grumpy-faced glory.

Top safari lodges and camps for your happy and safe hippo encounter.

Tongabezi Lodge, Zambia
This upmarket and romantic lodge perched on the Zambezi River in Zambia offers sunrise and sunset boat safaris with qualified and experienced guides. Hippos are very much your neighbour when you stay at Tongabezi and it is an exceptional way to observe them

Makakatana Bay Lodge
This is a luxury safari camp based within the iSimagaliso Wetland Park in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa near to St Lucia which boasts the largest population of hippos in the country.

Robin Pope Safari’s Luangwa River Camp
A small and intimate camp situated on the banks of the Luangwa River in Zambia. The river flows through The South Luangwa National Park.

Musango Safari Camp
This Zimbabwean excusive camp sits on Lake Kariba situated just off the shoreline of the Matusadona National Park.

Mopiri Camp
Hidden away on the North-West side of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Mopiri offers its guests a fantastic water camp experience.