If you have ever experienced the tranquility of drifting along with the current on one of Africa’s majestic waterways from the Limpopo north, soaking up the birdlife and the lushness of the large riverine trees, then you will possibly have encountered a pod of hippopotamus or three. Or would that be hippopotami? No matter…
Historically these creatures occupied suitable habitat wherever it was found south of the Sahara, and up along the Nile River. Now, they’re extinct or rare in most heavily populated areas. The majority of Africa’s rural population depend on water sources such as the great Zambezi river for their livelihoods and most will tell you that hippos have a dark side. Living as subsistence fishermen, local tribesmen go about their daily activity in narrow dugout canoes, commonly known as mekoro (this is the plural. The singular is mokoro), laying gill nets across papyrus-lined lagoons and channels and, as a result, people come into contact more frequently with hippo than, say, lions, which are largely restricted to fenced off game reserves. In the dry season, especially October, mature bulls (twenty years and up) are known to control sections of river, lakeshore and shallows as exclusive mating territories, and don’t tolerate intruders, including passing boats, mekoro and rival males.
Londolozi has long been renowned for it’s leopard, but for most of our guests the humble hippopotamus inspires as much awe and wonder. And we have a lot of hippos.
Hippos appear to suffer a form of social schizophrenia. They’re highly gregarious, interacting often and tolerating close contact when they’re in water, and often lying in a heap when resting ashore each day, warming themselves up in the sun, but when they’re out grazing, usually at night, each animal becomes its own independent and unsociable unit. Females with offspring are the exception and are inseparable. Due to their size, they’re largely immune from predators on land, hence they don’t herd together for safety like the ubiquitous impala. When they’re in the water they tend to cluster. Whether this behaviour has evolved as protection for calves vulnerable to crocodiles or simply to cram themselves into any available space is a subject of some debate. However, we’re seeing a fair amount of crowding in the waterholes of Londolozi.
At the moment, most of the waterholes out in the bush are dry and so there is a lot of competition for the waterbodies that remain. Just last week I counted at least fifty hippos piled into the Sand River by the causeway! Admittedly, all those animals living in such close proximity has turned the waterhole into something of a smelly bubblebath, but it is arguably the best place to see them.
Hippo rest, bask in the sun and digest food by day, commuting out into the grassy open areas to feed by night. Using the same paths – or hippo highways – to and from the waterholes, they can cover anything up to ten kilometres before returning to the sanctuary of the water before dawn. With every season, grouping patterns and densities change. With more habitat available in the wet season, they spread out. During the drier months they gather in larger groups, territorial turnover is high and competition is at its peak. Territorial bulls will tolerate bachelor males – even within the pod – provided they behave submissively and refrain from sexual activity. On occasion these two- to three ton behemoths drive out the younger males with great ferocity and gusto, leaving them to survive an outcast existence in the least favourable habitat. These showdowns are more often heard than seen as they often take place under cover of darkness. They will aslo often take place in thick reed-beds, inaccessible to vehicles.
The bellowing sound of hippo contest often fills the night air along the Sand River, while the gentle “wheeze-honking” from the nearby waterholes is almost part and parcel of the Londolozi experience. Most of us take this for granted but to see hippos in such great abundance is something to be greatly appreciative of. For them to flourish there are two essential requirements: water deep enough to submerge in and nearby grassland, both of which are plentiful at Londolozi, so it is indeed a hippo haven.
Whether it’s watching them leave the waterhole at dusk during sundowners, enjoying the young ones swimming around like fat babies in armbands or spending time with them at the causeway as they interact and snort their contentment, the hippopotamus is a big part of the game drive scenery and should be an essential part of every safari experience.