Hippo Facts to Know Before an African Safari

baby hippos

Seeing exotic animals in the wild is one of the best reasons to make your next vacation an African safari. While there are a variety of species that you may encounter while traveling through Africa, one of the most interesting is the hippopotamus.

Most people have seen these animals at some point in their life, whether at a zoo or on television. However, encountering a hippo in the wild is a much different experience than viewing these creatures behind glass, making it a smart idea to learn a little more about hippos before your trip. Here are a few interesting hippo facts that you should keep in mind if you plan to see these animals on your African safari.

Hippos Can Be Dangerous

If you’ve ever seen a hippo in a zoo, then you’ve likely only seen these animals floating lazily in the water, possibly leading you to believe that they are gentle creatures. While hippos would prefer not to interact with people, they can be extremely dangerous animals, particularly if they feel threatened.

Hippos are very large and powerful and have been known to attack without unprovoked. What makes hippos more dangerous than other creatures is that that can attack in both the land and the water, meaning you need to be careful if you find yourself near these creatures.

Hippos Are Fast

There are several surprising hippo facts that you should know before leaving on your African safari, but perhaps the most surprising is these large animals can move quickly. Because of their appearance, many travelers assume that hippos are slow, but this is simply not the case.

On land, hippos have been seen running at speeds close to twenty miles per hour, and it’s not unusual for hippos to travel multiple miles a day when searching for food. So, if you find yourself a good distance from a hippo, be prepared, as they may be able to make up the ground much quicker than you might imagine.

Hippos and Water

Hippos and water go hand in hand, making it a good idea to learn about some of the aquatic facts related to these African animals.

First, hippos, while they do venture on land from time to time, will spend the majority of the day in the water. Two-thirds of a hippo’s day—sixteen hours—is spent in the water, and this includes sleeping. While they are sleeping, the will automatically surface for air every five minutes or so and won’t wake up when doing so. Because hippos are pensive to sunlight, they must frequently return to the water to protect their skin.

Second, hippos are actually closely related to whales instead of other land mammals. Studies have shown that whales and hippos once shared a common ancestor, which is likely the reason that hippos are so drawn to water. At one time, it was thought that hippos were related to pigs, but DNA evidence corrected this misconception.

After learning these interesting hippo facts, you’re probably ready to see these animals in their natural habitat, which means you need to start booking your next African safari today.

Peter’s African Safari Travel Diary

We had a great night in the Ruaha River Lodge and this morning went out on our game drive already before 6:00am in order to be able to get hold of a potentially beautiful sunrise. And what a sunrise that was, we were not disappointed at all!

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This is one of the routines when you are photographing on safari to get out as early as possible in order to be able to see the sunrise, enjoy the stunning colours during this first hours of the day and of course also to see potentially as many animals and if lucky predators still eating their kill from last night. The highlight we got this morning was no predators, but instead a beautiful giant eagle owl sitting high up in a tree.

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After we had done some driving we went down to the Ruaha river in order to have breakfast. There is nothing like having breakfast in the bush, where the sun is already a bit higher and already starts warming up the air, which is a nice welcome after the usually cool nights and morning hours. Alex our guide was nicely preparing the whole breakfast setup and we started enjoying our coffee or tea, while eating the deliciously prepared breakfast.

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We had at the same time the possibility to watch the animals in the dried river bed like elephants, antelopes and even some hippos. It quickly got warmer and we had to move on to come back to the lodge in order to pack and prepare for our next hop to Selous.

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We were brought to Selous by a small airplane from Fox airlines. We were heading to the beautiful Rufiji River Camp, where we arrived at 3:00pm.

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Our tent was built underneath a high roof made from wood and we were again surprised about how beautiful and comfortable the interior looked like in this place, far away from standard civilization. Meanwhile Joel and I were already used to sharing one room or tent and as they tended to be so spacious there was absolutely no problem with that.

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At 4:00pm we started our boat cruise on the Rufiji river where we would have the opportunity to see all the animals from a totally different view as compared to the usual view out of a vehicle. We started with huge groups of pelicans who were absolutely not shy when the boat got closer.

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Next were hippos who were hiding everywhere in the water and the one group we had approached now was obviously surprised and upset because they hurried to get away from us as quickly as possible.

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Around the river you can see a multitude of birds but as you already know I am not a birder. Nevertheless one cannot help keep shooting these beautiful animals and I even got the chance to shoot a goliath heron this evening – yes I am very proud I managed to identify this beautiful bird.

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One of the highlights was to be able to get very close to crocodiles and we saw quite a few magnificent ones. They were dozing lazy on the sandbanks in the grass enjoying the evening sun before sliding slowly back into the water as soon as our boat came closer.

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Another beautiful sunset closed the day when our boat arrived at the lodge to let us enjoy our dinner and well-deserved sleep after this day of breath taking views and adventures.

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Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

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Everything you need to know about Hippos

hippo on african safari

Hippopotamuses are considered one of the most intimidating creatures on the planet. Their aggressive nature and ability to easily outrun a human have earned hippos the reputation of being a dangerous animal. But exciting animals like the hippo are what makes African safari vacations so exhilarating. Seeing one of these large creatures in the wild is a wonderful experience.

Hippopotamuses may be one of the most potentially dangerous animals on the planet, but their numbers and habitats are threatened by an even more dangerous life form: humans. The opportunity to see a hippo while on an African safari may not be available much longer if people are not aware of the amazing animal that is being lost. Here is everything you need to know about hippos.

  1. The Name

Hippopotamus means “river horse.” This term comes from the Ancient Greek language, surprising for an animal that is so iconic to Africa.

  1. They Make Their Own Sunblock

People once believed that hippos sweat blood. This was due to the natural moisturizer that they secrete while sunbathing along the shores of rivers and watering holes. The red, oily substance helps to protect the hippo from the sun and germs that may infect the animal.

  1. Surfacing is Often

Good news for those on safari vacations in South Africa: The hippo normally does not hide beneath the water surface for long! Though they spend most of their lives in the water, the hippo cannot hold their breath as long as some aquatic mammals. They must surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe. Even when the hippo is sleeping, this surfacing is automatic.

  1. Territorial Creatures

Hippos love their aquatic homes. They become territorial and aggressive towards threats while in the water. This is because everything important in the life of a hippo, reproduction and having their babies, occur in the rivers and water holes in which they live.

  1. Faster than Any Man

A hippo may look like a fat, slow animal, but they can easily outrun even the fastest of men. Some have been timed at 19 miles an hour, and for very short distances they can reach up to 30 miles an hour.

  1. Small Appetites

Though the hippopotamus is a huge animal, it does not consume much food, relatively speaking. These 4-ton animals feed on grass and normally graze for four to five hours a day, consuming about 80 pounds of food. Hippos will travel up to 6 miles on the African terrain to find a good grazing area.

  1. Related to Whales

Whales and hippos are distantly related; the split occurred 55 million years ago. Whales, porpoises and other cetaceans are the closest living relatives of hippos today.

  1. Threatened Numbers

The populations of hippos living in the wild are experiencing a drastic decrease in numbers. Their existence is vulnerable and it is more important than ever to educate the public on ways to protect this magnificent creature.

  1. Terms to Know

A male hippo is known as a “bull”, female a “cow” and a baby is called a “calf.” Hippos living together are often referred to as a “herd” or “pod.”

The best way to see hippopotamuses in the wild is to go on a safari vacation in South Africa. For more information, view our African Safari Tours page.

Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa