For the most part we tend to watch hippos in a rather peaceful equilibrium. Whilst resting during the day, they languidly float around waterholes, honking at one another or showing off a big yawn if you’re lucky enough. Guests tend to ask if hippos actually ever do anything and how it is that such a placid looking animal can have such a dangerous reputation. Well if you’re keen to know the answer to this then have a look at the serious of images below which I took during a remarkable sighting yesterday morning. The story is documented in the captions. You’ll never look at the ‘placid hippo’ in the same light ever again.
Two hippo bulls take each other on in a fight of epic proportions. Territorial males will allow other males in their waterholes as long as they show signs of subservience and typically a bit of yawning, flicking of dung and honking is enough to decide who the boss is before any conflict is actually needed. However, in this case, the two opponents were apparently evenly matched and both were vying for territoriality.
During the fight it is really important that the opponents remain facing each other. Their tusks are lethal and if they disengage their jaws, the fleeing hippo will expose his body to his opponent’s tusks, which can tear into his flesh. There are some records of males having lower tusks that are 50cm long.
During the fight it was very hard to distinguish who had the upper hand. In this photograph, one of the males is desperately fleeing. All the while there were some females and youngsters watching avidly from the wings as well as a family of Egyptian Geese and their 15 goslings who stopped to watch the show for the hour that we were there.
The hippos propel themselves off the floor of the waterhole, thereby performing swan dives. Their huge barrel shaped bodies, result in big waves, splashes and general pandemonium. I wish we had been able to see what was going on under the water but judging by the splashes, bubbles and clumps of loosened soil that kept emerging, the fight was just as brutal below the surface as it was on top.
At one point the fight becomes so intense that one of the males was actually flipped onto its back and rolls completely over so that his foot shot out of the water. This was still not enough to dissuade him though and the fight continued into shallower water.
At this point the bull on the right had gained the upper hand but the other bull could not turn and flee as the bank of the waterhole was very steep and he had no option but to turn and lunge back. Here you can clearly see the one male trying to impale the other on his sharpened tusks and slash into his neck. Male hippos have much heavier necks and thicker skin folds than females to protect them in situations such as these.
In this photograph you can also see a few of the scars, some old and some new, that the teeth have left on the skin. The skin in this area is 6cm thick to try to protect them for this exact reason. They also produce a secretion onto their skin with strong antibacterial properties so that despite having deep wounds and lying in muddied water all day, they do not become infected. The newly identified red pigment is called hipposudoric acid and the orange one, norhipposudoric acid. These two combine to form a pinkish fluid seen on hippo skin.
These tusks continue to grow throughout their lives and are kept permanently sharp by rubbing against each other as the upper and lower canine work against each other. This means the tips are lethally sharp.
The sheer gape of the mouth is astounding. In Estes 1998, it states records of a hippos jaws being “wide and powerful enough to have bitten a 3-meter crocodile in two”.
Notice how the gums are bleeding. These hippos hit each other with such intense power that I will never forget the sound of their tusks clashing. It’s a sound that is in fact quite sickening.
You can see the intensity of the fight, not only in the flinging of water and bodies but in the eyes of these huge beasts too.
It really was incredible to witness some of the heaviest beasts on the earth take each other on and I felt as if I was watching something primeval. Now a days, as humans, so many of our interactions with one another are sanitised and disconnected, whether it be through Skype chats, people more interested in their phones at the dinner table than each other or following our friends lives on Facebook. This sighting totally contrasted this and was scarily raw and untamed. It was amazing to watch the intensity with which these two individuala met and engaged with each other because they had so much at stake. It also served as a swift reminder of the brutal force these creatures are capable of and why it is that we need to stay out of their way at all costs.
Written and Photographed by: Amy Attenborough
Video To Watch: Seen a few months ago, this incredible sighting of two males fighting was captured by Su Jing Wong: