South African Hippos in the river.

Interesting Facts About the South African Hippopotamus 

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This month we are looking at the South African Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus Amphibius Capensis), also called the hippo, common hippopotamus, or river hippopotamus. Even if they are not one of the big five, hippos have always been a visitor favourite in Mabalingwe Nature Reserve, and they can been seen lounging around in the dams around the reserve.

Hippos are large semi-aquatic mammals, with a large round body, stubby legs, a short tail and a big, soft looking head (except for the large teeth of course)!

They are considered the third largest land-dwelling animal (first place goes to the elephant and second to the rhino!). Males can grow to around 3.5 meters long and weighing up to 3,200 kilograms which is as much as 3 small cars!

Do Hippos Sweat Blood?

Hippos are heat and sun sensitive so to stay cool in the South African heat, they spend most of their day in rivers and lakes. They can see and breathe whilst submerged in the water because their eyes, nose and ears are located on the top of their head. When they must be out of water during the day, they have a super-cool feature to help protect their skin from drying out – they sweat an oily red liquid that covers their skin and even acts as sunblock, as well!

Despite their massive size, hippos can move very fast in water and can hold their breath for up to five minutes underwater. When completely submerged, their ears and nostrils fold shut to keep water out. Hippos do not really swim. Their method of travel is very simple: they walk underwater. Hippos can let themselves float or sink by controlling their breathing and body position.

Because of their sensitive skin, hippos are most active at night, when they forage for food. They are mega-herbivores and eat mostly grass – and wow do they eat! A hippo can eat around 40 kilograms of grass in a night while traveling between 3 – 5 kilometers.

Despite its stocky shape and short legs, it can run up to 30 km per hour over short distances.

Social Habits of The Hippo

Hippos tend to live in herds of around 20 individuals, led by one large dominant male. Dominant males are very protective over their group. To fight off rival males, they open their huge mouths and display their long, curved canines! They also make loud grunts and aggressive splatters in the water. The most common hippo vocalisation is the “wheeze honk”, which can be heard over long distances.

The other members of the hard are females, their young and a few young non-breeding males. Female hippos, called cows, give birth every two years, usually to a single calf. Soon after birth, the mother and her baby join up with other cows and calves for protection against predators, such as crocodiles, lions and hyenas.

The hippo is considered to be extremely aggressive and unpredictable, frequently charging and attacking boats. They are threatened by habitation loss and poaching for their meat and ivory canine teeth. As of 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists hippos as vulnerable, with a stable population estimated between 115,000 and 130,000 animals worldwide.

In the wild hippos live for around 40 years. In captivity, they tend to live longer and may reach up to 50 years old. The oldest hippo in captivity was Bertha at the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden who died in 2017 at the age of 65 years.

Do Hippos Have Pink Milk?

A popular internet myth claims that hippos have pink milk –  this has been disproved by National Geographic in a few social media posts stating that like all mammals, hippos produce white or off-white milk for their young but the “sun-block” secretions their skin releases to moisturise and protect their skin turns to a bright orange-red in the sun so it is possible that the milk looks pink when mixed with these excretions.

Mabalingwe Nature Reserve is 12 500 hectare of bushveld. If you don’t know where to go, the chances of spotting animals will be greatly reduced. Visitors to Gweda Lodge can book a guided game drive (by the Mabalingwe rangers) because they will help you get your bearings and also show you the more elusive animals, making sure you find a pod of floating and relaxing hippos in one of the dams. Happy Hippo watching!

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