Hippos & People in the Okavango Delta

It is a fact that hippos kill more people annually than any other African mammal besides humans. So how does the relationship with the people in dugout canoes and the resident hippo population in the Okavango Delta work?

Hippo bulls are highly territorial and have their “hippo pools” which they defend from other hippo males and most other intruders. The deep water in the middle of these pools is where hippos feel safe and is most valuable to them. So when gliding through the still, clear waters of the delta on a mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe) the local polers will always stick to the shallows.

It is often possible to view hippo safely from a mokoro because what we do not see is that there is a distance of shallow water between you and where the deep “hippo pool” starts. Warning charges are often given by the males up to the edge of the pool but very rarely will they risk their own perceived safety by coming out further. It is not worth risking an attack for them unless their “personal space/ hippo pool” has actually been invaded.

Hippos live in groups of up to 20 individuals known as pods. These normally consist of one dominant male, his harem and their offspring. The other instance when a hippo will readily attack is if it’s a mother with young. Due to the fact that hippo can hold their breath for about five minutes, these attacks normally occur when a mokoro has glided over a pool in which the hippo have been undetected whilst they were submerged.

Hippo Pod

Hippo are grazers, eating for the large part grass on land like a cow does. They do this mainly at night when humans are not around them, hence the misconception that hippo are fully aquatic animals.

The other instance which can result in a hippo attack is when they are returning to the water along their well-trodden hippo paths in the early hours of the morning. The reason is that if a perceived threat gets in between a hippo on land and its “safe place” in the water, they have no choice but to do everything they can to get to the water and in their minds, save their own lives. What this results in is a head-on charge (imagine a mini with massive spikes attached to the front driving towards you at 40km/h) towards the water going over or through anything that stands in their way.

Therefore, some basic guide lines when around bodies of water in Africa that have hippo populations in them are:

  • Avoid deep pools when in small water craft; rather take the time to go around them.
  • If you have to cross a particularly deep pool, take at least ten minutes to observe the pool for any hippo coming up to breathe, this is still no guarantee, as they could move in underwater at any time.
  • Avoid hippo paths (recognisable by the raised ridge running down the middle, a bit like a bush track for vehicles) close to the water in the early morning and a few hours after sunset. This is when the hippo will be moving on these paths.
  • When camping close to the water always keep a fire burning, wild animals are inherently weary of fire so this will help to alert hippos and everything else that your camp is not a place for them.

Lastly, the hippo is a magnificent and unique creature that we are all privileged to share this planet with and those of us lucky enough to see them in the wild should be thankful. Hippos are under serious threat from habitat destruction, drought, and the removal of water form river systems for irrigation of farms and to supply cities and villages with the water they need. This does not leave much for the hippos at the end. It is possible for people and wild animals to co-exist peacefully but it is up to us and future generations to make this happen.

Words and images by Jamie Keenan

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