Why are hippos dangerous on land?

Hippopotami of the species Hippopotamus amphibius (‘Hippos’), are widely distributed over Sub-Saharan African savannah biomes. They were declared a ‘vulnerable’ species, as over the last 10 years the population declined between 7 – 20%. In total, there are about 130,000 – 140,000 animals left in 2022. And all of the hippos are dangerous on land.

They live in family groups, with the dominant male strongly defending his territory in water. On such occasions, and especially under confined conditions, human-hippopotamus interaction can get very serious for humans. Submerged hippos can rarely be seen and capsizing of boats happens often. And also wading fishermen checking their nets are highly vulnerable. Both of these accident scenarios lead to the second highest number of human fatalities suffered by animals in Africa. Most fatalities occur through mosquitoes.

Three main types of animal trails in Southern Africa

On land, hippos got a home range which they mark with faeces and urine, but typically do not defend. Hippos walk on land every evening for grazing and return sometimes in the morning. They always use the same exit-/entry point from and to the water. And they regularly use trails from this point to their preferred grazing area. These trails show two distinctive rows of parallel tracks – which are typical for hippos. See picture above.

Besides of a hippo trails there are two other types of communal animal trails. Pathes regularly used by elephants are wider, flat trampled, and do not show these two rows of hippo trails. And the third ones are so-called ‘mixed animal trails’. These are the pathes used by antelopes and other animals, filled with small-hooved tracks, and often leading to water. Therefore a ‘hippo road’ can clearly be spotted by an experienced person in the landscape.

Getting run down by a hippo

If in the morning a human will use this path, and a hippo will be spooked at his grazing area further inland, the hippo will take for sure his hippo-track back towards safety. And if this human is in between the running hippo (regular speed abt. 17 km/h) and water on the hippo-track, he will have to jump very fast off the track. Otherwise, he will get run over. Hippos are really dangerous at this scenario.

Trying to defend an agricultural lot against hippos

Hippo walks in the evening to more juicier vegetables at a farmer’s garden, instead of munching grass on meadows. The farmer will defend his subsistence vegetable lot vigorously with whatever he has got on hand. Which are very often only sticks or spears. Such confrontations are dangerous for both sides and farmers often are getting trampled or bitten.

Danger of female hippos with newborns

Some days before giving birth, pregnant female hippos will leave the herd. They look for a secluded place on land next to water. And there they will spend a period of abt two weeks’ time completely separated from other hippos. This time serves to rear the newborn and imprint their characteristics to each other. So they never get lost of each other again. During all that time from leaving the herd, female hippos on land are dangerous and highly aggressive towards any intruder.

Meeting a displaced male hippo in the bush

This is the most dangerous scenario, as it happens regularly in hippo country. And the location of this danger cannot be foreseen. It is the case when a dominant male hippo is getting defeated by a challenger. In nearly all cases the looser – the old and former dominant male – will be heavily injured after the fight. Open, gaping wounds over the whole body, and he has to leave ‘his’ water. He can’t go back into this water again. Therefore, he has to wander around finding a watery place, which is not already taken by another dominant male.

Very often he has to walk over hills to other valleys or wide savanna plains to find a new home. In the meantime, his wounds are getting infested. Carnivores will smell it and he is getting very itchy and aggressive to ward off those dangers. Often, they will lie down for a rest in the middle of the Bushveld. And if an unsuspecting human is coming around the corner – he will attack him for sure. This human would never have thought that he meets a hippo in the middle of nowhere, far away from water. But it happens.

All four scenarios happen in real life. And it is not an evil character of hippos per se, but just circumstances. Either this big and fast-moving animal wants to defend himself or just wants to get back towards safety.

Lessons learned why hippos are dangerous on land

  • Don’t walk in the morning between deep, open water and grazing areas on hippo trails. Not only returning hippos are the danger, but also grazing buffaloes
  • Stay away from reed beds and heavy vegetation near water. There could be a nursery for Mrs. Hippo and her child. Or a crocodile nest with a defending female croc. Or just a grumpy old Dagha-Boy (old Buffalo bull). Likelihood to meet one of these inhabitants is very high.
  • As a Guide or Back-up Guide on a trail, be always alert and observe all SOPs