Tag Archives: Hippopotamus

Satara Summer 2021 – The River Horses

The Hippopotamus is a perennial favourite with visitors to South Africa’s wild places. Generally regarded as “jolly”, probably because of their portly bodies, hippos are actually extremely aggressive and dangerous and noted for killing more people in Africa than any other wild mammal.

Especially when they are out of the water, and feel their escape to their aquatic abode blocked, hippos become very aggressive. One morning near Balule we encountered an enormous Hippo bull sauntering back to the water of the Olifants River, and we were happy that he chose to follow a game trail back instead of walking along the road!

When they feel threatened, hippos will often rush back to the water and beware anything caught in their way. We saw this cow and calf returning in a hurry to the pool at the Sweni Hide near Nwanetsi – the speed with which they smashed into the water was amazing!

It’s often difficult to determine whether hippos are playing or fighting – both look equally serious to us human onlookers. Joubert got this pair going at it in the Gudzani Dam near Satara.


Jostling Hippos

When we visited in September, Joubert had great fun photographing these young hippos testing their strength and skills against each other in the Sunset Dam just outside Lower Sabie in the Kruger National Park.

(All these photos were taken by Joubert, and are dedicated especially to you Lois!)


Being taken advantage of…

Ever get the feeling that your kindness is being abused, Mr. Hippo? Just asking…

This temporary island being used (abused really, don’t you think?) by sunbathing Marsh and Serrated Hinged Terrapins was seen at the Kruger National Park‘s Nwaswitshaka Waterhole on the S65 road between Skukuza and Pretoriuskop in May 2019.

Common Hippopotamus

Hippopotamus amphibius

Although the Hippopotamus seldom needs any introduction, most people are entirely unaware of just how big these portly animals are. Bulls can reach 1.7m high at the shoulder and weigh as much as 3,200kg (though usually around 2 tons), while cows are smaller, reaching weights of 1,700kg.

Hippopotamus require deep, permanent pools in slow-flowing rivers, dams and lakes, usually with exposed banks and islands and easy access to grazing grounds. They consume 100kg or more of fodder daily, consisting mostly of grass but will also feed on fruits, reeds and other waterplants. Areas subject to heavy grazing by Hippo take on a park-like appearance, with short “mown” lawns. They have been recorded taking carrion from carcasses. In times of drought hippos will travel up to 30km in a night to reach grazing, and will try to make do with any water or mudhole as protection from the sun.

Hippos live in herds consisting of a territorial bull, cows and calves, numbering from 2 to 200 (usually around 15). The territorial bull will tolerate other mature bulls in his area provided they act suitably submissively – if not, terrible fights will break out in which one or both combatants are often killed. Inside the group the cows also maintain a strict hierarchy. Territories are demarcated by dungpiles and scattering droppings on prominent bushes and rocks by flicking the tail. Hippos follow specific trails between their waterhole and feeding grounds, and is especially dangerous when encountered along these. In fact, Hippos are among the most dangerous of African animals and cause several human deaths annually. Instances have also been noted of Hippos killing (by drowning or biting) other herbivores or crocodiles which venture too close. They are surprisingly fast on land, capable of speeds in excess of 35km/h, and are just as fast in the water. Hippos are most active at night, preferring to spend the hot daylight hours lolling in the water or baking in the sun on a sandbank and then heading out to feed at dusk.

Most Hippo calves are born in the rainy season, when cows give birth to a single offspring after a gestation of about 8 months. The calves are usually born in reedbeds, where they remain hidden for a few weeks before being introduced to the herd as bulls are known to kill calves, even their own. Cows are incredibly protective of their young and nursing usually takes place in the water. Thanks to their large size and aggressive nature, few Hippos succumb to predator attacks, though lions, hyenas and crocodiles will attempt to catch calves given an opportunity. Drought and starvation are the biggest cause of natural deaths in Hippo populations. They have a life expectancy of up to 50 years in the wild.

Owing to a declining population due to poaching and loss of habitat, the IUCN considers the Hippopotamus to be “Vulnerable” and estimate that the total African population numbers between 125,000 and 148,000. It is estimated that there are at least 5,000 (and probably considerably more) Hippos in South Africa, where they now occur naturally only in the Lowveld of the Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces and the north of Kwazulu-Natal, although reintroductions have occurred outside these areas. Reliable places to see Hippos in South Africa are the Kruger National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Pilanesberg National Park.


Hippos and Drought

The Kruger National Park is experiencing one of the worst droughts in recorded history, and the Satara area of the Park seems to be the worst affected of all.

Of course, this has a tremendous impact on the water dependent hippopotamus. While there are still substantial pools of water remaining in man-made dams, stream and the large rivers, the lack of rain has meant that the available grazing around these water sources has been drastically denuded, causing the hippos to have to travel further and further to satisfy their considerable daily food requirement. For the first time I can remember, we encountered hippos spending the heat of the day out in the open veld, miles away from the nearest water.

On the second day of our winter 2016 visit, we noticed a hippo that had succumbed to the drought lying in a pool in the Nwanetsi River, just a few kilometers from Satara along the S100-road. Knowing that the carcass would soon start attracting predators intent on an easy meal, we decided to visit the sighting again that evening. Sure enough, we arrived to find a fairly large crocodile tearing at the bloating body. When the rest of the hippo pod occupying the pool started moving closer, we thought we were going to see them attack the crocodile to try and defend their fallen comrade. Bot nothing. They plodded past, barely giving the unfolding events a passing glance, almost as if resigned to the fact that they too will likely meet their end in this fashion, and leaving the crocodile to go about his gory business…

Harrowing as it was to witness, we had to remind ourselves that drought, and the deaths of the animals too old or weak to cope with the demands made by the difficult circumstances, is a part of the natural cycle in a wilderness like Kruger. We passed the same pool in the Nwanetsi again on our last afternoon at Satara, only to find that another emaciated member of this particular herd of hippos had lost the battle.

Drought Hippos (19)