Wildlife Spotlight: The African Hippo

By Sarah Gold February 15, 2024
Numerous hippos gathered in the water in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Hippos gather in a pond in the Serengeti, as seen by Micato guest Karl-Heinz Hoefert from a hot air balloon.

With their massive, up-to-8,000-pound bodies and thunderous bellows (reaching 115 decibels—the equivalent of a rock concert), hippopotamuses are an imposing physical presence in the waterways of the African savannah and frequent stars of African Safaris. Thanks to explosive tempers and prodigious appetites, these creatures loom equally large in both cautionary travel tales and indigenous legends.

But there’s more to these bulky, semi-aquatic beasts than meets the eye (or deafened ear). In fact, we at Micato find hippos utterly fascinating. So here, in honour of World Hippo Day (February 15), we’ve collected a few reasons why.

Curiously Water-Adapted

On safari, you’ll almost exclusively encounter hippos in and around water. Since they don’t sweat (instead, their skins excrete a reddish protective substance, which has inspired the oft-repeated myth that they exude blood), they can easily overheat in the fierce African sun. This is why you’ll typically see them either dozing in the thick, cool mud edging rivers and lakes, or fully submerged – with only their eyes, ears, and nostrils showing above the water’s surface.

Remarkably, though, hippos can neither swim nor float. Rather, they rely on several unique physical attributes which allow them to spend virtually half their lives underwater. These include webbed, four-toed feet that splay out to let them walk or run along river and lake bottoms; nostrils and ears that shut tight when submersed (hippos can hold their breath for up to five minutes); and a subconscious reflex that pushes them to the surface to breathe while they sleep in the water.

It’s only once the sun sets that hippos emerge from their watery wallows, to nocturnally graze on grass and fallen fruit. An adult hippo typically eats more than 80 pounds of vegetation a night – which sounds like a lot, but is actually much less than what other, less sedentary herbivores consume.

Intensely Social — and Territorial

Hippos live in groups of between 20 and 50, which are called herds, pods, or (our favourite) bloats. Group members interact with one another by vocalizing in an array of clamorous grunts, burbles, and roars. They also communicate using their fan-shaped tails, sometimes swishing them in the water to create turbulence, and sometimes (less charmingly) by spraying their dung to mark territory.

Each hippo pod mainly consists of females and their young, overseen by a dominant male. To maintain his mating rights, this bull must continually assert his dominance by fighting other males. Battles between bulls are extraordinary to witness: the two hulking animals charge at one another, jaws wide open to expose sharp, protruding lower canines, and wrestle ferociously—sometimes for hours, and sometimes to the death.

“We were on a morning game drive and came upon these male hippos fighting,” says Micato Safaris guest Blaine McBurney

While less aggressive than bulls, female hippos are extremely protective of their young, and have also been known to attack anything they perceive as a threat (including boats and occasionally humans). This makes sense considering the enormous investment a mother hippo must make to successfully raise a calf: After eight months of gestation, she will nurse her single baby for up to a year.

Ecologically Essential

They may not be the friendliest neighbours, but hippos are crucial to maintaining the health of ecosystems that support dozens of other species. As they move through lakes, rivers, mud banks, and mangroves, hippos churn up vegetation and create channels for water to flow, and for smaller creatures like fish and reptiles to feed. In spreading their dung around, they also provide an important source of nutrients for plants, fish and aquatic insects. Such inadvertent “engineering” projects are so valuable to the surrounding habitat that wildlife biologists now consider hippos a keystone species — in other words, fundamental for a thriving ecology.

A hippo walks through green swampland in Botswana

You’ll have numerous opportunities to safely see and hear hippos—and countless other African species—on any Micato safari to Southern or East Africa. To learn more and start planning your ideal trip, speak with one of our safari experts.

Up Next: Love Letter to Africa (Video)