International Hippopotamus Day 2021

February 15th is International Hippo Day, a day to celebrate hippos.

There are two species of hippopotamus

Large common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) that live in around 30 countries in Africa, and the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) which is the smaller cousin, native to West Africa, and now classified as an endangered mammal.

Hippos wallowing in their muddy water, Tanzania
Hippos wallowing in their muddy waters in Tanzania
common hippopotamus

Hippopotami are large rotund, water-loving animals which are native to Africa. The word “hippopotamus” comes from the Greek word for “water horse” or “river horse,”. Hippos are not related to horses but are related to whales and dolphins. They are the third largest living land mammal after elephants and white rhinos. 

Smiling hippos
Smiling hippos

Hippos are semi- aquatic animals spending around 16 hours a day fully immersed in water, rising every 3-5 minutes for air. The water keeps them cool and protected from the hot African sun. Their eyes, nose and ears are on the top of their head to enable them to see and breath whilst their bodies are submerged. 

Hippos are considered to be the world’s deadliest land mammal due to their very aggressive nature and size. In Africa it is estimated that they kill around 500 people annually, mostly due to human animal conflict when hippos venture on to land where humans live, in search of food. 

Hippos submerged in water peering out keeping a watchful eye
Hippos submerged in water keeping a watchful eye

They are also very territorial and can be aggressive if challenged for their water and other habitats. Hippos play an important role in the ecosystem. Their activities in rivers, both movement and dung provide food and movement to fish. 

After spending most of their day submerged in water, at sunset they will venture out to graze on the land. They can consume up to 40kg of vegetation during the night. 

A very muddy hippo!
A very muddy hippo!

Hippos secrete a red oily substance from their skin to protect themselves from the harsh sun. They have four large splayed webbed toes to support their weight on land which also enables them to move efficiently in deep water. 

Living in herds of 20- 100 individuals which is made up of 1 dominant male, non-dominant males, females and their young. A herd of hippos is also known as a pod, school, bloat or siege.

Hippo yawning is a danger sign to back off!
Hippo yawning is a danger sign to back off!
  • Length: 3 – 5.5 m 
  • Height: 1.6 m
  • Weight: male 1600 – 4500 kg, females 1400kg

Native to sub-Saharan Africa close to rivers, lakes and swamps. Hippos used to roam throughout Africa. Sadly, their numbers have declined and are now mainly found in protected habitats in East African countries. 

Hippos in the South Luangwa River
Hippos in the South Luangwa River

Hippos mate and give birth in water. Females will birth one calf every two years. A calf can weigh 45 kg at birth, they feed from their mother both on land and submerged in water by closing their eyes and nostrils. 

Female hippo with her very young calf
Female hippo with her very young calf
Conservation status

Vulnerable, numbers are stable (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

THREATS: Human initiated habitat loss due to commercial development of new housing areas, roads and farming, hunting, trapping, civil war, climate change (droughts). 

Hundreds of hippos are shot annually to minimize human wildlife conflict when hippos venture into human settlements eating vegetation and attacking humans.  They are also hunted for their meat, ivory tusks and skins. 

pygmy hippopotamus

Pigmy hippos are half the height of common hippo, standing at 70-80 cm tall and weigh less than a ¼ of an adult common hippo. Pygmy hippos are nocturnal, secretive and reclusive which is the reason why there is not a lot that is known about them. They lead a solo life apart from when a male is looking to mate with a female, who also lead solo lives. Pygmy hippos are very territorial and will become aggressive when they are protecting their territory. They spend most of their life near and in rivers, lakes and swamps to keep their skin wet and moist. Their diet consists of lush vegetation, such as grasses, shoots, leaves and fallen fruits.  Lifespan for these hippos is around 30-50 years in the wild. 

conservation status

Endangered with numbers decreasing. Number of individuals left in the wild 2000 – 2500. 

THREATS: Human disturbance: loss of habitat due to mining, farming, deforestation, hunting and trapping, civil war and hunted by bush meat hunters (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Please enjoy this video on hippos presented by Sir David Attenborough


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