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I'm going on an adventure to Africa next year. We'll be in the savanna and thus I'm wondering how to behave in sight of hippopotamuses. What are the most common mistakes people make around hippopotamuses that result in injury?

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The most common mistakes made by people in hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius, territory in Africa include:

  • As with every other animal, the most important mistake is not taking the time to learn about their behavior and respect it
  • Getting between parents and calves
  • Getting between males when they're fighting for territory
  • Getting in their way when they're attacking their predators, which include crocodiles in the same water
  • Getting in their way when they're on land eating vegetation
  • Getting in their way when they're going from land back to the water
  • Walking or camping on paths where there is visible hippo dung
  • Ignoring warning signs of an impending attack

Many of my actual quotes come from an interview with scientist John Coppinger in July 2010, published in Discover Wildlife entitled How to avoid a hippo attack. These are his two opening paragraphs.

In my experience, the commonly heard claim that hippos are responsible for more attacks on humans than any other dangerous animal in Africa is a complete myth. The Luangwa Valley has the densest population of hippos in Africa, yet after half a lifetime here, I am aware of only two instances of serious human injuries being caused by hippos.

While there are few attacks, it would be folly to assume that these animals are not dangerous. Hippos are large and powerful, and despite being herbivores, are armed with long, lethal teeth that are designed for battle. I have seen a hippo kill a large crocodile with a single bite, and a human would offer little to no resistance if a hippo was to become aggressive.

Hippos in water:
Like many animals, Hippos which can live up to 50 years, are at their happiest when left alone in their habitat, which is in water deep enough to totally submerge themselves, generally at least 5 feet deep. That said, they can be very dangerous to humans, mostly because in the event of an attack, we're not likely to survive it. It is therefore vital to avoid inciting an attack in the first place, whether on land or on the water (in a boat or canoe).

Hippos are vegetarian, so humans are not prey. Even if they kill one, they just leave it there. That doesn't mean we can't be hurt, just that the reasons why they hurt us are different from some other animals. We're at highest risk when we act like predators.

Hippos have to spend most of their time (at least 18 hours a day) in water deep enough to cover them because their skin burns very quickly, and they get sunstroke and die. (If they're on land in the heat of the day, such as during the dry season, they secrete an interesting substance which is designed both to protect them from both sunstroke but infection. It's red, so if you've ever heard that "hippos sweat blood" that's what people are referring to. This article offers excellent scientific reasons for this phenomenon.)

Hippos can hold their breath for up to seven minutes, although they usually come up to breathe more frequently than that. That's a built-in behavior, and they can even come up to breathe in their sleep without waking up.

Hippos live in large groupings, called pods, so even if you see only one set of eyes, assume that there are more underwater, and take proper precautions. Hippos can't swim, float, or jump, so they stand and walk around in water. However, they can run up to 20 miles (32 km) per hour as long as their feet are touching the ground.

The safest thing to do while boating in hippo territory is stay in water deeper than five feet, or if you're in a narrow area, stay alert.

Hippos don't like vibration. When boating in hippo territory the advice is to bang on your boat with an oar or paddle, or anything that will vibrate the boat. It can prevent hippos from coming up underneath you and capsizing the boat. It's also a way for hippos to track your presence. That doesn't mean you're safe, it's just a way to buy time while you go to a deeper area. Going to an opposite shore and disembarking is a good idea, but not always practical if traveling down the river to a destination.

Hippos are ferociously protective of their young and will readily come to their defense if they feel that their young are threatened in any way. This is when they're most likely to attack. Think about what you'd do if someone broke into your house with your child sleeping in the next room. In this situation, we're in their house. Hippos breed, give birth and even suckle their young under water for up to 18 months, so it's not always easy to spot the calves, unless you see them at the water's edge. Adults start at around five feet tall, so if you see one shorter than that, it's probably a youngster. The best thing to do is assume that any large group of hippos you encounter includes some young that are being protected, and stay a respectable distance away.

The first obvious outward sign of an attack in water is when they open their huge mouth. What looks like a yawn is a display of large teeth from a bull (make) hippo. If it feels threatened, or angry, it then lets out a very loud grunt, which is followed quickly by the attack. If you already hear that grunt, you're getting too close, and should immediately retreat. If you can actually see it, you may be in very serious danger. The attack can be a fight between males, a grabbing of an animal predator, or something else. Human or not, anything that threatens the family is at risk. If you're near deeper water, continue on, keeping a constant beating on the boat. Don't turn back, because you already know there's a family there. If necessary, find a safe spot on the other side and disembark. The hippo's very unlikely to come up and give chase on land. It would take him away from his family, and it isn't safe for him in the heat of the day.

Hippos on land:
You're safe on land for most of the day, as long as you're at a respectable distance from the shore, and aren't on a path with hippo dung. However, once the sun goes down, the hippos will come out of the water to eat. They eat an average of 150 pounds of food per day, all vegetation, so they have to use their land time wisely. They're often on the shore or a nearby path for four to five hours, and can travel up to 5 miles from where they got out of the water. That's not the time to stay in their territory. When they're ready to go back to where they want to enter the water, they do it instinctively and quickly, plowing down anything in the way.

If you come across a hippo on land, don't get between it and the water. Hippos are extremely fleet of foot, and will outpace humans. They move very quietly and can be very dangerous if encountered suddenly. When a grazing hippo is disturbed, it is extremely dangerous to get between it and the water as it will run blindly along its paths, trampling anything in its way.

When confronted by a hippo on land, the best thing one can do is dive out of its way. Avoid hippos by not going near thickets and reeds near the water, and do not camp near hippo paths or waterholes as hippo are attracted to fires and lights. Be very vigilant during drought times as hippo will tend to concentrate in small waterholes and pans, and as they feel threatened in shallow water, will not hesitate to charge. They are quite capable of biting a human in half with little effort. During the rut, males fight viciously and often to the death, leaving opponents with severe wounds. Females normally wander off to solitary confinement in areas of reed-beds to give birth and often keep the young away from the males who may occasionally kill them. Hippos, especially in winter months, will lie up away from the water’s edge. Source.

Another Source from Uganda offers this advice when a hippo's on the way to the water:

If you find yourself being chased by a hippo, don’t run in a straight line. Their voluptuous figures do not allow for sharp turns, one must zigzag to get away. If need be, jump behind a tree or termite mound for cover.

The Smithsonian has a beautiful story of a couple who have spent 15 years protecting an endangered pod in Zimbabwe. Although they've become as close to friends as one can get, they've spent many hours up in trees, when a hippo on land gets too close. I infer from this that if you're able to climb a nearby tree to escape, you should do so. (For animal lovers, it's a really cool article. The wife, Karen Paolillo, from Britain, is lovingly known in Africa as "the hippo whisperer.")

Another helpful way to know where a hippo is on land, is to memorize and listen for the call of an Oxpecker bird. They spend much of their time eating ticks and other bugs off the skin of the hippo. The bird call is a good way to warn you that you're in hippo territory. The bird feeds off other large animals in the area, so it's not always a hippo, but better safe than sorry.

Hippos also have a very pungent odor, so if you don't see or hear anything, a sharp strong smell can alert you to their presence in the vicinity.

For the best view of the hippos in water, and for your own safety, don't schedule your visit during the dry season. (This page lists weather patterns in various areas of Africa. It can be helpful when planning your trip.) Hippos are primarily in the water for much of the year. During the dry season when the waters recede, they spend much more time on land and are much more dangerous during the dry season. They tend to be found in larger groups on land, and much of the feeding and fighting takes place out of the water. If you're walking or camping near an area where a larger group of hippos are on land, risk of fatal encounter increases greatly.

On water and land, don't bother to try to distract them. They don't see well. Trying to distract them by swinging arms, clapping, or making noise doesn't work with hippos. Don't throw anything either, like rocks. It doesn't incite them, as with other animals, but it doesn't prevent attacks either. It's just wasted time that should be spent retreating.

The end of the article I started with offers a good basic summary:

JOHN’S TOP TIPS

If you’re in a canoe, allow hippos plenty of space. Avoid rivers where numbers are concentrated.

Tap the side of the boat to signal your position so hippos do not come up beneath you.

Keep your distance when on foot. Avoid thickets where hippos may be skulking.

Listen out for oxpecker calls – a warning sign that there may be a hippo around.

As a last resort, use a tree or termite mound as cover.

(That article didn't explain why the termite mound is a good idea, and I haven't done research yet as to the relationship between hippos and termites. However, I find that tip fascinating.)

Supporting and additional references:

Check out the site 10 fascinating facts about hippos from the Kariega Game Reserve in Eastern Cape, South Africa. It lists some of what I've mentioned here, and much more. There's also a beautiful video of the hippos during each part of their day, both in and out of the water.

Sandiego Zoo Global
African Wildlife Foundation
Uganda Wildlife World Wildlife Organization
Earth's Endangered Creatures

I know you didn't ask it, but it's worth noting that we're much more dangerous to hippos than they are to us. The main predator of hippos is humans.. For years, people have killed them for their teeth and meat. In fact, according to many sources they're considered either endangered or vulnerable. Hippos have very few predators, and most sources list us at the top of the group.

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    +1 Wow. I think I'll go to Antarctica instead. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jul 30 '17 at 0:52
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    It may simply be that termite mounds are so big that even a hippo prefers to go around rather than through them. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jul 30 '17 at 1:20
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    Sue you are awesome! Excellent and detailed answer as always :) – OddDeer Jul 31 '17 at 9:36
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    Tl;Dr don't get in their way :) – user2766 Aug 1 '17 at 8:06
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    @Sue I disagree (only slightly) with the last paragraph; perhaps big-game hungers are more dangerous to hippos than they are to us, but I'm certainly not. ;) Taking the raw numbers killed and comparing them does not seem like a proper comparison. Still, that fact is good to know, so I'm not suggesting you remove it. Excellent post! It appears you did a lot of research for that. This is one of those "It's too bad I can't give +2" moments. +1 – Loduwijk Sep 28 '17 at 13:38

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