A few days ago I noticed two white-backed vultures descending in the distance. When vultures descend like this, it is often because they have spotted a carcass and are looking to scavenge from it. We decided to follow up.
We drove along a series of waterholes and as we approached the last in line, we were greeted with a rather macabre scene. Two hippos lay dead inside the water.
From what we could see, the two hippos were both males and my immediate thoughts were that they had been killed in a fight. Hippo bulls are territorial and will often fight with other males to protect their patch – often to the death. Although there were signs of severe organ damage (the details of which I will spare you), we could not see any bite marks on either hippo, so a fight had to be ruled out.

It suddenly struck me that there had been a huge electrical storm the night before and that these hippos had almost certainly been killed by lightning. The dead fish also floating around the waterhole served to confirm our theory.

As these awesome bolts of lightning sweep across the savannas, most animals seek shelter, but hippos in the water could be the most vulnerable of them all.

We returned a few hours later to get a better look. Attracted by the smell and the vultures, seven hyenas were pacing up and down the bank of the waterhole, trying to figure out how to get to the hippos. One of the hippos lay on the bank of the waterhole, and the strangest thing was that he had died with his mouth wide open. How ever he had died, it was instantaneous. As his mouth sat open, I raised my binoculars up to my glasses and I could see the whiskers on the side of his nostrils appeared to have been singed. The second bull lay upside down, with his head underneath the water and his swollen belly and feet up in the air. We couldn’t get closer to this hippo because, rather curiously, a young bull hippo approached it and began to show incredible aggression toward the dead hippo (see video below). Trying to assert his dominance, this young bull was biting ferociously at the dead hippo and the less that the dead hippo fought back, the more heightened the young hippo’s aggression became. In hippo pods at Londolozi, there is usually only one dominant bull, and usually around six or seven cows. When a new, younger hippo bull wishes to challenge the dominant bull, he has to fight for it. It could be possible that this younger bull had noticed the demise of the older dominant male and could have been trying to assert dominance over it. On the other hand, it could just have been a young hippo showing curiosity, which, amongst the confusion, may have escalated toward aggression – we cannot really be sure.

Hippos send majority of their days resting in the water. Due to the fact that they need to come up for breath every five minutes, parts of their body are often exposed at the surface. This, together with the fact that they are almost always touching the bottom could make them even more vulnerable during electrical storms.

We also cannot be 100% sure that these hippos were in fact killed by lightning, as no one was there to see it happen. However, the hippo’s open mouth, singed whiskers and visible organ damage certainly offers strong support for this theory.
Apart from one case in a zoo, I could not find any other documented incidences of hippos being struck by lightning. There are several accounts for giraffe (whose height would make them the perfect lightning conductors), elephant and several species of African general game. The most documented animal deaths as a result of lightning are for hundreds of elk, killed after one single strike, and many cases of livestock, which were found dead in their pastures the day after a large electrical storm. In fact, in the United States, the incidence of people being struck by lightning is highest on the fourth of July because many more people are outside.

The unopened carcass proved difficult for the crocodiles to break into. Here one investigates a potential weak spot near the back legs. Photograph by Paul Danckwerts

Meanwhile the first carcass was swiftly devoured by a few really large crocs, who took turns feeding around the clock. Photograph by Paul Danckwerts

This begs the question, if it can happen to us, and to other animals, could it happen to a hippo? Of course. Hippos are often in the water when late afternoon thunderstorms occur out here. The water that the hippos spend all this time in acts as a channel for the electrical discharge from lightning and the current could travel through the water. Hippos generally have some part of themselves sticking about the water, making them vulnerable. In addition, hippos do not float and need to be touching the bottom of the waterhole or river, so they are also earthed, making them even more vulnerable. It may have been the case that these two hippo were the only two in the water at the time of the lightning strike and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although this may be the case, hippos probably don’t get killed by lightning very often. This was the first time I had seen this, and after forty-five years of tracking at Londolozi, Elmon Mhlongo had never seen it either. Neither had Dave Varty, whose family have owned Londolozi for the last 91 years – a very special sighting indeed.

As bad luck as it was for the hippos, we benefitted by enjoying incredible sightings over the next few days, with crocodiles, lions and hyenas all feeding on the carcasses.

A Birmingham male waits for another turn to feed while one of the bloated carcasses floats below. Photograph by John Varty

Well over a hundred vultures, like the white-backed individual pictured here, have been waiting their turn to feed on the hippo carcasses. Photograph by James Tyrrell

The sickly Tailed lioness would come in and feed at night, trying desperately to sustain her strength, but we doubt it will be enough to keep her alive.
One of the Birmingham males fed on the carcasses for two days, then moved off when they became too putrid, and the Tsalala Tailless female and her cub would also venture in from time to time. Interestingly enough the Birmingham male left her and her cub alone, but there’ll be more on this development in a future blog…

As you read this, the vultures that have waited their turn for almost a week have finally got their turn, and are moving in to salvage what carrion they can…

Filed under Wildlife

14 Comments

on Hippos Die From Lightning Strike: Lions and Crocodiles Benefit

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Guy Lacy Chapman

YOWZA! What a story!

Marinda Drake

Shaun the blog reads like a soap opera. Incredible sighting. Amazing that the younger bull “attacked” the dead hippo. Probably thought it is the only chance he will get to be the victor. Lightning is so dangerous.

Jeff Rodgers

For some, the story and video may be too gruesome . . . but for me it was one of the best ‘circle of life’ stories I have ever heard/seen.

Al Kaiser

Thanks Shaun. I only saw this in the daytime when activity was rather subdued.

Gregory Rockwood

Great telling of the account, but it left me terribly curious as to the signs of severe organ damage in hippos. 🙂

Janie Hansen

Mind blowing account in its entirety, from macabre photos of the downed hippos, to the behaviour of the young bull, and the video of the feed. Thanks Shaun, James, Paul and John.

Penny Tainton

Thanks for writing about this Shaun. It was an incredible and rather awful sight, really bringing home the brutal realities of the wild. On another note, I’m so pleased that the dowger lioness managed to have a meal that she didn’t have to bring down herself, and hope that it provided some sustenance and comfort for her in her last days.

Mary Beth Wheeler

Yikes! What an amazing story! After a few days the smell must have been absolutely putrid. Poor hippos; Nature continues to surprise…

Wendy Hawkins

Wow what an awesome sighting, sorry about the death of the hippos, but nature at its best & what a thrill for the Rangers & guests of Londo & us viewers at home! Thanks for sharing Shaun. The video is amazing! 🙂

Callum Evans

A very unusual yet fascniating sighting!! Very rarely do lions and crocodiles tolerate each other!! Also happy to see the Tailed lioness still with the pride and feeding.

Callum Evans

By the way, what is the status on the Birmingham Males? I’m becoming interested in their new role in the Londolozi lion dynamics

James Tyrrell

Callum they’re still in and out, and spending a lot of time in the south east…

Callum Evans

Oh ok, I’m half expecting them to challenge the Majingilane soon! For the moment, they don’t seem to be doing much to stake a claim

Leonie De Young

An interesting blog Shaun. I am sure that the stench was unbearable – glad I wasn’t there. Some good pics and I was amazed to see the lioness going into the water when there were crocs around. Sad to lose two hippos, but, it is the circle of life and they provided sustenance for many animals and birds. Thanks very much for sharing.

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