Have you ever been to a zoo gift shop and checked the aisles of stuffed animals? If yes, then you have most likely seen dozens of cute hippo toys sitting on the shelves. And it’s no wonder why! They’re big, adorable, and 100% cuddly, ticking all the boxes of what makes a great stuffed animal.
However, in reality, hippos are not so friendly and willing to cuddle. In fact, they are known to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, right next to lions, leopards, crocodiles, and rhinoceros. But why are hippos so aggressive, and what should you do when you face one?
What Are Hippos?
The hippopotamus is a large semiaquatic mammal found in sub-Saharan Africa. It is part of the Hippopotamidae family, with another notable member being the pygmy hippopotamus.
According to experts, the closest living relatives to hippos are pigs, dolphins, and whales. As a result, they share some common characteristics, like their social structure, appearance, and behavior.
Hippos live in areas with abundant water as they prefer to spend their time submerged. On average, they sit for 16 hours per day in the water in order to keep their skin moist and cool. Yet, they leave the water regularly in search of food, such as fruits and grass. But if food is scarce, hippos can use nutrients stored in their stomach and go for almost three weeks without eating.
They are also social animals, meaning that they hang out in groups, also known as pods, bloats, schools, or sieges. Usually, these groups consist of up to 30 members, including both males and females.
However, sometimes, they can reach up to 200 hippos, depending on how much food and water they have in the nearby area. But no matter the size, these schools are always led by a dominant male.
Similar to other mammals, hippos use loud snorts, wheezes, and grunts to communicate. While hippos can also use subsonic vocalizations to communicate, they typically rely on loud and noticeable noises. Its signature noise is called the wheeze honk and can be heard from almost half a mile away.
Why Are Hippos So Aggressive?
Generally speaking, hippos are incredibly aggressive animals. As a result, even other dangerous species, such as alligators or crocodiles, avoid interacting with them. However, what makes hippos so aggressive is their territorial nature.
Simply put, hippos tend to protect their territory at all costs. That’s particularly true for water, as hippos spend most of their time there. While defecating, male hippos shake their tail from side to side in order to mark their territory, which can span up to 820 ft. This space is used for mating, and you’ll often find anywhere between 7 and 10 females there.
When a territorial battle breaks out, hippos behave aggressively. But males rarely kill each other. Instead, they end up establishing which one is the strongest. Yet, there have been multiple cases where females killed the dominant males. However, those encounters are more common in hippo communities where males have attacked their offspring due to overpopulation.
What About Land?
On land, hippos are much calmer and won’t always attack people and other animals on sight. But, if they lack food or water, their behavior becomes just as aggressive as during territorial fights.
And while they are herbivorous animals that feed on aquatic and terrestrial plants, hippos are also capable of consuming meat, particularly carrion. In other words, you don’t want to be near a hungry hippo.
When Are Hippos Aggressive?
Hippos tend to be quite unpredictable. However, some of their behavior is directly tied to their environment and weather conditions. For starters, males are dangerous during the mating period due to the fierce competition. This happens at the start of the rainy season, which varies depending on what part of Africa they live in.
As an example, West Africa experiences its rainy season from June to September. In contrast, the South rainy seasons last from October to April. So, avoid rivers that are popular hippo gathering spots during this period.
Additionally, the dry seasons can also have a negative effect on hippos’ aggressiveness. Simply put, they will act more territorial as waterways shrink in size. That’s because hippos will have fewer drinking and swimming places and will also face food shortages due to lack of vegetation. Therefore, they will feel more agitated and might invade nearby human communities.
Usually, the dry season extends from November until April in West and Southern Africa. Also, remember that hippos get more aggressive later in the season, increasing the chances of attacks. That is why locals try to prevent tourists from going anywhere near hippos during that time.
Are Hippos the Most Aggressive Animal?
Although they are pleasant to watch from a distance, hippos get aggressive when approached. In fact, they are considered to be the deadliest large land mammal in the world, with at least 500 people killed by hippos per year. While usually male hippos are those that fiercely defend their territories, females can also become aggressive if their young are in danger.
What’s interesting about hippos is that other animals are also aware of their aggressive behavior. Therefore, even dangerous predators like crocodiles and lions do their best to avoid this huge mammal. And though there are confrontations between them, hippos almost always win.
How Dangerous Are Hippo Attacks?
It’s important to understand that hippos usually only attack people or animals that enter their territory. However, they are less territorial on land than they are on the water. That’s why, more often than not, boats and crocodiles are the prime targets of hippo attacks.
When an attack does occur, the odds of escaping depend on whether the victim can get away from the hippo or not. Unfortunately, if a hippo is able to grab its victim, the survival rate drops drastically.
Since hippos are submerged, it can be quite hard to see them from the surface, so it’s easy to miss the animal regardless of its massive size. And by the time the victim has time to react, they are most likely already in the water, surrounded by hippos.
You might believe that it’s much easier to escape a hippo on land. They have short legs and are incredibly big, so outrunning them shouldn’t be that challenging, right?
But the truth is that an angry hippo can easily outpace a human, as they can average 20 mph in short bursts. In contrast, humans can usually only run up to 8 mph. And, just like in the water, once the hippo closes the gap, there’s little you can do to escape.
There are a couple of ways a human can die from a hippo attack. Typically, being bitten or crushed is the most common. But if the attack happens in the water, drowning also becomes an actual possibility.
What to Do If You Encounter a Hippo
Whether you go on a safari or live in Africa, there are many occasions where you could stumble across a hippo. But you don’t have to panic; you still have a chance to escape before the animal attacks you. Just make sure to follow these tips to increase your success rate.
1. Make Yourself Noticed
As previously mentioned, hippos are vegetarians. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t rip you apart if given a chance. Even though they are big, these animals are easily startled.
More often than not, surprising hippo results in a death sentence. If you notice a hippo that blocks your path, you should make loud noises. That way, you will let it know you’re there, hopefully prompting the animal to go away.
If the hippo doesn’t want to leave and starts heading toward you, don’t panic. Breathe and analyze the animal’s behavior in order to understand if they are preparing to attack you or not. One of the clearest signs that you are too close to a hippo’s territory is their yawning. Hippos yawn when they want to warn other animals or humans. That occurs in case the hippo perceives them as threats to its territory.
Therefore, when you notice a yawning hippo, turn around and head in the opposite direction of the waterway. That way, you will avoid coming across other members of the same hippo school. However, don’t run; just leave slowly without turning your back toward the hippo, or they might charge at you.
3. Find High Ground
Unfortunately, if the hippo is hungry or has already been startled by another creature, it might rush toward you and try to attack. Quickly, look for nearby rock formations and climb on them to get out of the animal’s reach. You could also try to climb a tree or the nearest hill.
Keep in mind that hippos can easily outrun you. But you should still give it a shot. If there’s no nearby high ground, running can be successful as long as you avoid moving in a straight line. You can also use obstacles like fallen trees and termite mounds to break the hippo’s line of sight and slow it down.
How to Survive a Hippo Attack
You need to understand that hippo bites are incredibly strong, with a force of over 2,000 psi. They can also open their mouths up to 180 degrees. To put it in perspective, that’s enough force to crack most animals in half, including crocodiles. So, if you find yourself in the grips of a hippo, running is not an option anymore.
That’s why you should avoid getting close to a hippo at all costs. However, that’s not always possible, especially if you row in a hippo-controlled river. But in case you happen to encounter one, don’t worry; you aren’t instantly doomed. Here’s what you should do to survive a hippo attack.
1. Fight Back
While it might sound counterproductive, fighting back can help you survive as long as you don’t panic and know exactly what you are doing. Try to kick or punch the hippo’s snout or their eyes. That might cause the animal to panic and force it to retreat, especially if they are alone.
However, if a hippo grabs your arms using its mouth, start gripping parts of the inside of its throat. The goal is to cause discomfort to the hippo in an attempt to free yourself and then run away. If you put up enough resistance, most hippos will just leave you alone and allow you to escape.
Once you are free, it’s time to run. Don’t look back; instead, focus on the road ahead, and with a bit of luck, you might be able to reach a safe location.
As noted earlier, use any obstacles you encounter and try to run in a zig-zag pattern to confuse the animal. And, even if the animal seems tired or suddenly stops, don’t slow down your pace, as they might quickly charge at you without warning.
Red Flags That You Should Avoid
Hippos are not animals you come across suddenly, like venomous insects, frogs, or snakes. On the contrary, there are plenty of warning signs that can help you avoid close encounters with hippos:
• Avoid paths that show clear signs of hippo grazing.
• Never get between a hippo and water, as they may consider you a threat.
• Don’t camp near areas with hippo waste and footprints.
• Getting anywhere near hippo calves can be a death sentence, especially if the angry mother is close by.
• Canoeing or kayaking in shallow lakes is dangerous because hippos dwell underwater. Instead, make sure to go for boat rides in deep waters.
• Hippos are sensitive animals and can be startled easily, so avoid creeping on them at all costs.
• Don’t get too close to male hippos that fight, even if they don’t seem bothered by your presence.
• Yawning is a warning sign of personal space invasion. So take the hint and get as far as you can. Similarly, if a hippo opens its mouth to flash its teeth, they are about to attack.
• Before a boat ride, always check the water for hippo signs. And be careful, as hippos can sneak under the boat, pushing it and flipping it over.