Hippos in Malawi; vegetarians with a big mouth

Many people who go on safari in Africa are very keen to see the famous Big 5. However, we always recommend not to focus too much on that. There is so much more to see in the African bush! In our series of blogs about safari animals in Malawi, it is time for an animal that a lot of people don’t know much about. Although you usually don’t see much of them, they are large and impressive animals. This time we’ll tell you more about hippos in Malawi!

Are hippos vegetarian?

Let’s start with an unpleasant fact; hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) are dangerous. Not because they eat (human) meat or are naturally aggressive towards us, but because they come out on land at night. Hippos eat grass and other vegetarian stuff, about 40-70 kg per day. They do this mainly in the dark, because they can’t stand the sun on their sensitive skin. You’ll find a nice story about that later in this blog!

Hippos are quite intimidating animals!

Hippos are quite intimidating animals!

Facts about hippos

When hippos come onto land at night, they feel like a fish out of the water. As soon as they are startled or feel threatened by something, they run back into the water as quickly as possible. Anyone who accidentally gets in the way will be trampled and sometimes even bitten. An average hippo weighs around 1500 kg, so you can imagine that that does not end well. Occasionally, territorial males decide to attack small fishing boats, but they usually take their testosterone out on the competition. As with almost any animal species, mothers are also very protective of their young. Many crocodiles didn’t survive a confrontation… Speaking of mothers, after a gestation period of about eight months, a hippo gives birth to one calf. The little one can be born on land as well as in water. If it’s the second, the mother has to quickly push it to the surface so it can breathe. The calf is able to drink milk underwater, which is often quite clumsy the first few times. An adult hippo can stay under water for about five minutes. When they take a nap, they close their nostrils and, through a special reflex, regularly float to the surface for oxygen. They don’t wake up for this!

Hessel with a hippo's molar

Hessel is holding the molar of a hippo. Can you imagine how big the tusks must be?!

Despite being vegetarians, hippos have impressive teeth. The tusks are made of ivory, just like an elephant’s, and are much larger in males than in females. Territorial fights always result in new wounds that sometimes even lead to death. Plant material is difficult to digest, causing some animals to ruminate. Hippos don’t do this, but have a number of special symbiotic bacteria in their colon that aid food absorption. They are so called ‘’hindgut fermenters’’. This process creates a lot of gas, so they always have a somewhat bloated stomach.

Hippopotamus in the river in Malawi

Those bubbles in the water are exactly what you think they are…

Where can you see hippos in Malawi?

Malawi is known for the large numbers of hippos. Although many people think that Lake Malawi is full of them, they are rarely seen there. Always be alert though! They like shallow water and prefer some vegetation along the shore, so you’re more likely to encounter hippos in Malawi’s rivers. The Shire River in the south has a population of a few thousand. This river flows through both Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park, where we did a fantastic boat safari: https://youtu.be/385EnAcmCTY While staying in Kasungu National Park and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, you will regularly hear the hippos. So watch out when you walk around at night! Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve used to have large numbers of hippos. Today they are rarely sighted, but as the park has been managed and protected by African Parks since 2015, the population is expected to recover here.

Best friends with a hippo in Malawi

In the late 1960’s, the Butterworth family lived in Monkey Bay, on the south side of Lake Malawi. Children Alan, Neil and Fiona spent almost all their free time playing in the clear lake. One day they were suddenly not alone in the water. An adult hippo had appeared out of nowhere, much to their mother’s shock. Due to the high number of boats, hippos were never seen here. The animal was believed to have come from one of the more quiet and natural bays in the area, where it had been kicked out of the family group. The children in the village called him Boris.

Hippopotamus in Malawi

It must be scary when this suddenly shows up next to you!

Against their better judgment, the children approached Boris and he seemed fine with this. Eventually they fed him lettuce, for which he eagerly opened his large mouth. At night he regularly plundered someone’s vegetable garden, yet everyone loved him. Boris became more and more relaxed and eventually the bravest children and teenagers even dared to climb on his back. He seemed to be okay with everything! Hippopotamus Boris A few years later, Boris had suddenly disappeared. There are rumors that he died of old age in someone’s garden, who then buried Boris. He couldn’t find the courage to tell all the kids that their best friend was dead… Alan later admitted that they were very stupid at the time and that he still can’t believe it never went wrong.

When Hippo was hairy

Many beautiful stories are told in Africa. Often to explain something, such as what lightning exactly is, or why a zebra has stripes. The stories differ per country or region, but are often very similar. The story of the Hippo goes something like this: A long time ago, before there were people on Earth, the Hippo had a lot of hair. He was always happily grazing on the savannah, along with the other animals. One day, however, lightning struck an old dead tree and caused a devastating fire. The Hippo had snored so loudly during his afternoon nap that he had not heard the lightning strike. He didn’t wake up until he inhaled the smoke from the fire. He turned out to be trapped in the flames and completely panicked! The only way to survive this was to quickly jump through the fire and run straight into the river. He made it, but all his hair was burnt away… The Hippo was so ashamed of his naked skin that he decided to stay in the river. Only his nose, ears and eyes occasionally surfaced above the water.

Hippopotamus in Malawi's Liwonde National Park

Usually this is all you see of a hippo

The Creator had seen the fire from afar and quickly came to see how all the animals were doing. Fortunately, everyone turned out to be fine, only the Hippo was nowhere to be seen. Finally, the Creator found him and asked him why he didn’t walk on the savannah. The Hippo was afraid to say anything and submerged again. The Creator was in no hurry and patiently waited for him to come up again to breathe. He asked the same question again, but in a more severe tone. The Hippo again didn’t dare to answer directly, but asked if he could continue to live in the water from now on. The Creator explained this couldn’t be allowed because the Hippo would eat all the fish. The Heron and the Little Crocodile would then go hungry. There was a reason to have so much grass growing on the savannah, so the Hippo just had to keep eating that. “And what if I really, really, really promise to leave the fish alone?” asked the Hippo. “Can I stay in the water during the day and graze at night when all the other animals are sleeping?” The Creator came to understand that the Hippo was afraid of being laughed at by the zebras and the antelopes and decided to help. “Okay Hippo, if this is what you want so badly, you can. But to prove that you really don’t eat fish, I want you to do the following. You can’t pollute the water, so you have to hold your poo until you get onto land. Then I want you to swing your tail really hard, so that your poo gets all spread out. That way I can easily see if there are no fish bones in it.”

Hippo on land

And that’s exactly what hippos still do! Although some people say it’s to mark their territory…

We’d love to read in the comments below what you find the most special about hippos!

Contact us here if you want to discover the possibilities of going on safari in Malawi with us. And don’t forget that there are many more reasons to travel to Malawi!


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