With enormous ivory canines, huge gaping mouth and aggressive tendencies, it is easy to see why first time safari goers think hippos are carnivores. It is, in fact, a commonly asked question by foreign guests whether hippos are Carnivorous. Patiently I always explain that although potentially dangerous to humans, these rotund creatures are in fact herbivores and subsist mainly on grass alone. However, as we all know, the only rule in nature is that there are no hard and fast rules…
Whilst out on a drive at Londolozi Game Reserve my guests and I witnessed something that is not in the ranger manual. A lion pride in the area had managed to kill a large male buffalo as the dusk set in. We sat watching them feed until all the other vehicles left and we sat alone with our spotlight on the pride. They had eaten their fill and some of the lions were sleeping nearby whilst the remainder sat with the carcass. The tearing of meat gave way to bushes cracking and rustling as a large hippo sauntered off one of the game paths. We all sat back in our seats and watched with interest to see how this interaction would unfold.
At first the pride paid no attention to the intruder, ignoring him as he sidled over towards the buffalo kill. It was only when he was within 15 meters did a few of the younger lions sit up and watch him approach. By the time the hippo was 4 meters away, the rest of the pride slowly moved out of the firing line and onto the other side of the kill. Upon yawning, the hippos massive canines bulged out in the direction of the lions causing a few of them to jump up and run away. Surely the building tension would explode, sending lions flying and canines gnashing in all directions?
To my amazement the hippo walked up to the carcass and began licking the blood and flesh. Only a few seconds later the lions returned to feed as well. On opposite ends of the carcass both lions and hippo stood at the kill. The stomach contents of the buffalo lay on the the floor and soon after arriving the hippo began to eat the partially digested grass that had been contained in one of the buffalo’s stomach chambers. He then turned and continued along the game path, disappearing into the darkness of the bush.
This was an amazing site to see and in all my years of guiding I have never witnessed anything like this before. What struck me was how civil the lions and hippo were towards one another. Tolerating each other so much that at one point they stood only 30 centimeters apart.
My analysis would be that the hippo was gaining salts and moisture from the blood and then taking advantage of the opportunity to feed on a large pile of freshly chewed grass. It is however, only an opinion and I welcome any thoughts or comments on this interaction to be added into the discussion. This is proof once more that there truly aren’t any hard and fast rules in the African wilderness.
Written and Photographed by: Chris Goodman