Hippopotamus – Complete Guide

Hippos are the third-largest land mammals on Earth and can be found in Africa and South America in Colombia. The hippo is a keystone animal in Africa and is one of the most well known. In this article, we look at these fantastic animals.


The hippopotamus, or hippo as they are mainly known, is a large mammal with a barrel-shaped body. They are greyish-black with pinkish areas around the eyes, ears, mouth, and skin folds. The pinkish colour can also be found around the lower legs, feet, and underparts. Calves are paler in colour after birth than adults and become darker as they mature.  

Hippos are smooth, hairless animals. They are classed as even-toed ungulates and have four toes. They have short, stocky legs which carry a huge body. Their heads are massive, and they have giant mouths that contain many tusk-like incisors and canines, which they use to break open fruit.

They spend much of their time in the water, where only their eyes, nostrils, and ears can be seen above the water.  

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The hippopotamus is a keystone species of Africa and was once more widespread than their current population. They could be found in most rivers, swamps, and lakes in Africa but can now be found mainly in protected conservation areas. Hippos need massive amounts of food to survive, and their numbers are low in the equatorial forest belt due to a lack of food.  

The hippo can also be found in South America in Colombia, although they are not native to the country. They were imported by the drug lord Pablo Escobar, who kept them in his zoo. Following his arrest, the animals were released into the wild. Although only four animals were kept in his zoo, there are now over 120 living in the wild in Colombia.


Although there are less than 150 hippos in Colombia, there are an estimated 125,000 living in Africa. This number has been down considerably in the past fifty years. Hippos are often hunted for their meat in some areas, but the main threat to hippos is the poachers who hunt them for their ivory.

The largest number of hippos live in Zambia. There are approximately 20,000 living along the Luangwa River, which runs through the country’s north. Uganda also has large populations of hippos, although extreme poaching in DR Congo has caused a severe decline in their population.

Hippos can be found in 34 countries, increasing in 16 of these. The decline in other countries of the animal causes many problems. Hippos keep water channels open by feeding on the vegetation, allowing the channels to stay unclogged and letting the water flow freely.


Hippos spend a lot of time in the water, and they require water that is deep enough to submerge themselves completely. They prefer waters with sandy substrates and can be found in rivers, lakes, and marshes. They eat up to 40 kg of food per night, which they find around riverbanks and travel several kilometres away to reach areas rich in nutrition.


Hippos are classed as semi-aquatic animals and spend most daytime hours in water. Although they do this to stay out of the sun, they also bask on the sand and mudbanks of the waterways and sometimes feed during the day. Feeding is mainly done at night when they move to the grazing grounds to eat. Hippos will generally move a few hundred meters or kilometres, although some have been spotted about 30km away from the nearest water. The distance they travel depends on the quantity of grazing material and the size of the hippo herd.

Hippos live in herds called schools. The schools usually consist of 10-15 hippos, although they can be found in larger herds of up to 30. Solitary bulls are also quite common. Although hippos are large animals, they can remain hidden in the water, lying low in waters with dense vegetation, especially when humans are around.

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Schools usually consist of an adult bull and several cows and their young. The bulls are extremely territorial, and they will defend their territory against others using their heads and tusks. The defence of the territory only occurs when in water and not while in the feeding grounds. The territories are marked by the bulls, which scatter dung onto tall clumps of grass, bushes, and rocks. They spread their dung using their tail to flick it sidewards.   

As well as marking their territories, the dung also allows them to find their way back from their feeding grounds as the herds separate when feeding, coming back together in the water. Hippos use fixed pathways to and from the feeding grounds consisting of two parallel tracks.

Adults can stay submerged under the water for up to 6 minutes. Hippos don’t swim but push themselves underneath the water or run along the bottom of the riverbed. Many people think that hippos sweat blood, but they secrete a red fluid that moisturises and lubricates their skin. This reddish mixture helps to protect against the intense sun rays and stops them from becoming desiccated.  

Hippos can be very vocal, with bone-shaking roaring grunts and snorts being the primary type of communication. These can be used to communicate with others or scare off rival bulls.  

Hippos are one of the most dangerous land mammals, with up to 500 deaths per year. Provoking a hippo with a calf or getting between a hippo and water can prove deadly.

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Hippos are large animals and consume up to 40kg of vegetation nightly. They prefer shorter grasses, although they will eat courser, taller grass during the dry seasons. Browse is often also included in a hippo diet. In areas with high populations of hippos, areas are often overgrazed, forcing the hippos to travel further to find a good food source.

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Hippos mate while in the water and usually happen in the dry season. They have a gestation period of between 225 and 257 days and give birth to a single calf. The calf usually weighs around 30kg. They give birth on land in dense cover, including reed beds or shallow water. After two weeks, they are ready to rejoin the herd, although this period can be much longer. Births usually occur in the rainy season.


Hippos typically live for about 40-50 years, with one hippo in captivity living to over 60.

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