Are Hippos Dangerous? A Deadly Killer?



Many people see hippos as gentle, lovable animals. However, looks can be deceiving. Although they may appear cute when we glimpse them from afar, don’t let that fool you; hippos are one of the most dangerous creatures in Africa.

Hippos are highly aggressive and attack humans when feeling threatened. With their enormous tusks, teeth, and speed, they kill around 500 people annually. Although they are herbivores, they’re still quite dangerous on land and in water if you don’t respect their space and keep a safe distance.

In this article, we’ll look at hippo aggression, why they’re so dangerous, and how to stay safe around these massive mammals.

Two hippopotamuses in the water with mouths open

Are Hippos Aggressive?

Yes, hippos can be aggressive, especially if they feel threatened

Males can become aggressive if they sense danger, and mothers may attack to protect their young.

Nearly all hippos become nervous when something or someone stands between them and the water where they live

Adult hippos sometimes become so aggressive with each other that they unintentionally become a threat to their offspring.

Young hippos sometimes get caught in these fights and can be injured or killed.

Can Hippos Be Dangerous to Humans?

Hippos are some of the most dangerous animals in all of Africa. If people wander into their territory, they attack and possibly kill them.

Many hippo-related human fatalities occur when the animal unexpectedly surfaces under someone’s boat or charges at them while they’re swimming, unaware of the threat lurking beneath the water.

Even though they may appear docile, hippos can become deadly very quickly. They have mighty jaws that can open to 180 degrees and chop you down with ten times more force than human jaws. 

Their lower canines are well-built for this purpose and can be nearly one and a half feet long

To make things worse, you often won’t even see them coming as they’re very good at holding their breath underwater for up to 5 minutes. That’s why hippos attacks are fatal, up to 87 percent.

Annual Deaths Caused by Hippos

Hippos kill an estimated 500 people annually in Africa, making them the world’s deadliest mammal after humans.

They kill nearly twice as many people as lions.

How Lethal Are Hippo Attacks – A Tragic Story of Mwaura and Babu

It’s always best to avoid hippos altogether, but if you find yourself in an attack, your odds of surviving depend on whether you can escape. If the hippo can grab hold of you, their viciousness becomes all too clear – as Babu’s tragic end.

In May, George Mwaura went fishing with his close friend Babu along the swampy shores of Lake Naivasha in central Kenya. While they were fishing, a hippo attacked and killed Babu. It is just one example of how dangerous hippos can be.

Babu had been attacked by hippos four times before, but he had always managed to escape. However, the fifth time was fatal

The hippo bit Babu on the leg, and he bled out before help could arrive.

Do Hippos Eat People?

Hippos typically do not eat people. They typically do not eat meat as they are herbivores.

However, when the grass is scarce, hippos have been known, though very rarely, to eat other animals, even dead hippos.

What Makes Hippos So Dangerous?

Hippos are dangerous because of several factors including:

Ever Growing Tusks

Hippos have extremely sharp incisors that can grow up to one and a half feet long. Male hippos, or bulls, tend to have larger tusks than females, known as cows.

These constantly growing teeth are made of ivory which is harder than elephant ivory. Making them very dangerous animals.

Hippopotamus showing huge jaw and teeth

Immense Body Mass

Hippos weigh an average of 1.5 – 4 tons (3000 – 7000 pounds).

A bump from a hippo is enough to crush bones, let alone what would happen if they were to trample you.


It can be difficult to outrun a hippo on land, as they can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.

Even in the water, they move fast enough to keep up with most humans – around five miles per hour.

Who Are at Risk of a Hippo Attack?

Hippo attacks only tend to happen to people living in nearby villages who rely on fishing for sustenance. 

They enter hippo territory when they fish, and they become easy prey.

Needless to say, as hippos are native to Africa, these attacks only happen there. So, if you’re swimming in a river in America, you should be more worried about alligators.

How to Behave Around Hippos in Water

Using caution when around hippos are essential, as they are large and dangerous animals.

Give Hippos Their Rightful Space in Water

Hippos are territorial animals that become ferocious when deprived of their space so

  • It’s best to avoid areas where there are large concentrations of hippos.
  • Note that hippos should not be forced into shallow waters as they typically reside in deep waters. When unable to submerge themselves, they will often attack anyone nearby.

Let Them Know You Are There

When you spot a hippo, alert them with your presence even when you are at a distance.

  • Beat the boat’s sides with a hand or strike the water with a paddle or long stick. Be aware that crocodiles and hippos often share the same waters. Never try to put your hand in the water.
  • When you see a hippo going underwater, continue to slap your boat and allow it to track your progress. It will help avoid the situation of the hippo surfacing under your boat.

Retreat Immediately When A Hippo Yawns

If a hippo yawns, that’s usually a warning sign that you’re getting too close.

Hippopotamus with open mouth in water close up

How to Avoid Hippo Encounters on Land

On land and in water, hippos are dangerous when they feel threatened. So be careful of hippos on both land and water.

If you find yourself in that situation, the following tips may help you:

Have a Clear And Wide Vision

To avoid a hippo attack, keep watch at all times and be especially careful around waterways.

It would be best if you steer clear of tight spaces in these areas because they are generally claimed by hippos who have already been pushed out of their territory.

Look for Dung Signs

Hippos spread their feces as they excrete to mark paths and use these fecal landmarks later to travel for food at night.

This is likely what happens if you find dispersed dung instead of a neat pile near a water body in Africa.

  • Do not strike camp and start a fire there, as hippos are nocturnal and will return to this path at night.

Use Cover If You Have To Escape

If you need to outrun a hippo, don’t try running in a straight line. Instead, use vehicles and other obstacles to break its momentum. 

Once you’ve gained some distance between yourself and the animal, it will hopefully stop chasing you.

Do Not Interact With Calves

Stay away from hippo calves – no matter how adorable they are. Their mothers will fiercely protect them if need be. 

And just because you can see a calf doesn’t mean its mother isn’t nearby too.

Hippopotamus calf

Final Thoughts On How Dangerous Hippos Are

Hippos are highly territorial animals that become violent if their territory is disturbed.

They have been known to attack humans, and with their size, teeth, and speed, they kill around 500 people yearly. 

It’s always best to respect their space and stay away from them. This will save you from being attacked and help preserve their natural habitat.


Can a Human Survive a Hippo Attack?

On average, hippo attacks are responsible for the death of 29 to 87 percent of their victims. Hippo bites are considered critical wounds, and depending on how the attack happens, your chances of survival may be very low.

Can a Hippo Swallow a Human Whole?

Hippos are plant eaters and generally consume grasses and plants, not people. Although if they had to eat a human, it wouldn’t be possible to swallow an entire person even though their jaws can open up to 180 degrees.

What To Do If A Hippo Is Chasing You?

If you see a hippo yawning, it is best to change your course and stay away from the animal. Suppose you are in a boat, rowing in the opposite direction of where the hippo was last seen. And if the hippo is chasing you on land, take cover behind natural obstacles or vehicles and run in a zig-zag pattern. It will help to reduce the momentum of the hippo and put maximum distance between you and the animal.

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