I had joined my guests on the Varty Camp deck for tea to discuss what they were most interested in seeing that afternoon. One of them mentioned that we had not seen too many hippos yet and seemed very interested in going to see if there was any activity at any of the waterholes around the reserve.
I was happy with the request as I personally enjoy watching the different behaviours of hippo when they are not resting. We decided to pass a few prominent water points to see if we could find a pod of hippos doing something a little more exciting than simply wallowing, which is what they do most of the day. Hippos spend most of the day submerged in water, digesting the food they have eaten the previous night, so finding the creatures themselves wouldn’t be too hard, but finding them doing something more active could be a little more challenging.
Luck was with us that afternoon as we were about to watch was something none of us had seen before.
While approaching the first waterhole on our route we heard something thrashing around in the water. We could not see the waterhole yet which let our minds wonder as to what it could be. I turned around and could see the grin on my guests face as this could possibly be exactly what we had set out to find. As we came over the ridge the first thing we saw was a hippo thrashing its head around in the water. My guests could not stop grinning. The first thing they asked was why the hippo was thrashing its head around, which could have been a few different things but often it is a dominance/threat display when a hippo opens its mouth yawning, water-scooping and head shaking. I had seen this behavior with hippo many times. This time it was different.
As we carried on watching this awesome display for a few minutes the behaviour started changing to something a lot more subtle and submissive as the pair then started moving around in a circle, head to tail, almost creating a whirl pool. At times one of them would role onto its side – a sure sign of submission.
This behaviour continued for some time.
We gradually came to realize that this was not two males, but rather a male and female, and the male seemed to be questing for a mating opportunity with this female.
Breeding is not strictly seasonal with hippos but most conceptions occur in the dry season, and the rainy season is the time of peak births. With that being said this male was almost certainly trying his luck with this female, despite the unseasonality of his endeavours. The sexual behavior of bulls looking for a female often entails the male wandering through a basking nursery of females sniffing at the cows’ backsides, to establish if she is sexually ready.
After doing about 6 or so full circles the male would try and get alongside the female and then behind her and try to mount her. When a bull finds an oestrous female, he wastes no time in entering the courtship display and forces her into prostate submission, whereupon he mounts her. The female’s head is often forced underwater, and when she raises it to breathe, the bull may snap at her. If the female is not ready she may turn around and try to snap at the male in an attempt to chase him off. By the looks of things this female was not ready to mate with the male trying to court her.
After numerous attempts of the male trying to subdue and mount the female, she seemed to have enough and started moving away from him. We carried on watching while the commotion calmed down. After five minutes or so the male slowly and submissively made his way closer to the female at which point the whole process repeated itself, and they began the circling once more.
With a very happy vehicle we watched for a while longer but unfortunately nothing came of it, or at least while we were watching. Even though most conceptions occur during the dry-season nothing is ever set in stone when it comes to wild animals and the way they work in such mysterious ways. It was an incredible experience for myself and guests, as neither of us had ever seen something like this happen before.