Africa’s Most Dangerous Predator: The Hippopotamus
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Part of the unassuming thrill of a safari is the possibility of coming close to danger and looking it in the eye. It is in the possibility of staring down at it, knowing full well that very little sits between you and possible chaos that kicks your adrenaline into overdrive and have you on the edge of your seats.
Africa is well known as a home to many of the world’s largest and most dangerous predators. A mere ride through the African savannah would bring you in contact with some of the biggest and scariest creatures. But what is Africa’s most dangerous predator?
It might come as a surprise to many to find out that the biggest and baddest of the African wildlife is, in fact, the hippopotamus. With its potbelly and somewhat adorable face, it’s quite difficult to think of the hippo as a dangerous creature. But the hippo is regarded as Africa’s most dangerous predator as it attacks and kills over 3000 people yearly. The hippo is a fascinating creature and here are 5 impressive reasons why:
Hippopotamus means river horse in ancient Greek. But despite its name, the hippo cannot swim or float. Hippos spend their day standing on surfaces below water, sometimes with only their nostrils peeking out – leading us to believe that they are agile swimmers. When going on a hippo safari, you’ll find out firsthand that they spend most of their days partially submerged in water to protect their skin from the sun. Their delicate skin needs to be moist at all times to prevent it from cracking.
The hippo’s eyes, ears, and nostrils are high on the roof of their skulls, allowing for these organs to stay above water while the rest of the body submerges. The hippo also has specific gravity – allowing it to sink and move comfortable along the bottom of the river.
A hippo can stay under water for up to 5 minutes before needing to come up for air. During this time, it can close its nostrils and ears to prevent water from entering. This remarkable ability allows for a hippo calve to nurse underwater. Young calves begin nursing underwater for 35 seconds before automatically resurfacing to breathe. This ability to stay underwater lengthens over time, and calves are capable of being under for up to 2 minutes by their second month of life. Young hippos stop nursing at 22 months, after which they live primarily on a grass diet.
Another factor that has contributed to the misconception that hippos are docile and harmless is the fact that these giant mammals are herbivores. Hippos come up to land in the evening and consume approximately 40kg of short grass a night. To meet this standard dietary intake, hippos may walk over 5 miles in search of food and graze up to 5 hours each night.
However, recent reports of hippos feeding on hippo carcasses have researchers wondering if they are indeed fully herbivores. This exceptional behavior has been viewed both at Kruger National Park in South Africa and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Are hippos cannibals? Researchers say that it’s unlikely – suggesting that hippos are sometimes driven to feed on meat when food or nutrients are lacking.
Hippos are extremely territorial, especially of their space in the river. Hippos live in a group of 30, consisting of a single dominant bull and other females with their young. Each group of hippos occupies a stretch of river of lake, which they protect and defend aggressively.
The dominant bull marks his territory by spreading dung. It also opens its mouth and displays its razor sharp canines as a warning to those encroaching its territory. So aggressive is an adult hippo that other formidable predators do not prey on them, though they do prey on young hippos. Hippos coexist with Nile crocodiles, and due to the fact that they inhabit the same habitats, territorial hippos often aggressively kill Nile crocodiles.
Its territorial nature has contributed to it being known as a dangerous creature as it fiercely protects its space from humans and animals alike. Boats traveling through rivers where hippos occupy are at risk of being considered as threats. This is why in some areas, it wouldn’t be a good idea to go on a canoe or a mokoro safari. On land, humans who are within the vicinity of crops that a hippo grazes are also at risk of being charged at. Sometimes, these aggressive giants also attack when unprovoked and for no known reason.
Within its group, hippos separate themselves according to their gender and age. Females and their nursing young group together on one end while males group together on another. The dominant bull usually stays on its own, apart from either group. Interestingly enough, when they are on land, hippos display a more solitary behavior, preferring to be alone rather than group together.
A possible reason for gender segregation is for the protection of their young as males may sometimes turn on their own young. In the wild, males have been seen to kill and eat their young for unclear reasons. Some suggest that it is to decrease their population while others argue that it may be because fathers are unsure if the young calves are theirs.
Be in awe of the giant hippopotamus as you catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat when you go on a safari in Hwange National Park!