Here’s What to Do to Escape and Survive a Hippo Attack

Written by Crystal
Published: February 6, 2023
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Hippos are big! They have teeth that can grow over a foot long and jaws that open four feet or wider. If one of these beasts sees you as a threat, would you know how to survive a hippo attack?

Hippo attacks happen in an instant, and they’re often fatal. But every now and then, a hippo attacks a person, and they live to tell the tale. What’s the secret to survival? Follow along as we explore everything you need to know about surviving a hippo attack!

Hippo Identification

Hippopotamus emerging from water

Hippos are highly aggressive and unpredictable and often charge other animals or humans.

©Radek Borovka/

When you encounter a wild animal, identify it to know how to react. Hippos are easy to spot with their bulky round body, stumpy legs, and giant head. These semi-aquatic mammals are also hairless, except for random hair tufts in their mouth. Most importantly, though, hippos are really big! They’re the second largest land animal, with the elephant stealing the number one spot.

When looking at the surface of the water, stay alert for hippo activity. Identifying a submerged hippo is trickier than spotting one on land. Since their eyes, ears, and noses are on the top of their body, they protrude from the water. Look for eyes, nose, and ears floating above the surface, and you’ll find a hippo.

If you’re in hippo territory, you might not see the hippos even though they are nearby. Hippos can hold their breath for five minutes at a time. So just because you don’t see a hippo doesn’t mean one isn’t hiding under the surface! These large mammals are so comfortable hanging out underwater that they even walk along the bottoms of lakes and large rivers.

What Else Should You Know About Hippos?

When a hippo opens its mouth wide, it’s a threat! This is their way of saying, “watch out” to other hippos, wildlife, and people.

Even though a hippo may appear calm and peaceful, don’t be fooled. These creatures can go from resting to full-on fight mode in seconds. And if a hippo becomes irate, they don’t calm down easily.

Whether you’re exploring land or water, stay on the lookout for hippos. Usually hanging out in large herds, hippos are noisy animals. They like to loudly honk, squeak, grumble, and bellow to communicate.

How to Survive a Hippo Attack: Where Do Hippos Live?

Animals With the Toughest Skin

To stay cool in the blistering African heat, hippos spend most of their day in rivers and lakes.

©John Carnemolla/

What are the chances of you running into a hippo? Unless you’re taking a trip to Africa, you don’t have to worry about a hippo attack. Hippos live in African rivers, swamps, and wetlands. They are native to over 30 African countries.

There are a couple of hippo species. The most popular large one, the common hippo, lives in East Africa. The other smaller hippo, the pygmy, resides in West Africa. Pygmy hippopotami have a small range in West Africa, where they live in the forests.

When you see one hippo, chances are you’ll see more. These mammals have flexible social systems. Common hippos can live in groups of 25 to 100 members. During periods of drought, you can find large numbers of hippos congregating by the limited water pools.

If you’re going to be out on the trail in Africa at night, you could encounter a hippo. Under the cover of darkness, hippos will leave the water pool to graze for several hours. A hippo can cover as much as five miles of territory in one grazing session. During this time, they’ll eat around 80 pounds of food!

How Dangerous Are Hippos?

How dangerous are hippos to humans? Very dangerous. Hippos attack people out on the water and land. Anytime one of these mammals thinks someone’s threatening them, they’ll attack. Oftentimes the attacks have deadly results.

Here are the different ways you could die from a hippo attack:

  • Drowning
  • Crushing
  • Lacerations

Approximately 500 people lose their lives to hippos every year in Africa. This makes hippos one of the deadliest animals worldwide.

Once a hippo grabs ahold of a human, it’s game over. Hippos are strong and focused. They have large tusks and sharp canines and relentlessly pursue their victims.

Hippos don’t want to attack people. Humans aren’t naturally on their menu. But when a boater enters their territory, these water beasts react with full force.

Since it’s hard to see resting hippos from the surface, sometimes boaters accidentally disturb them. Startled and infuriated, the hippos usually respond by capsizing the boat. Once you fall in the water, the threat of a fatal hippo attack goes way up.

How to Prevent a Hippo Attack

Hippo Attack

Hippos have been known to charge after humans!

©Martin Mecnarowski/

Once a hippo gets a hold of its victim, the chances of escaping are slim. That’s why the smartest move is to prevent hippo attacks altogether. Let’s look at a few ways to avoid angering these large water lovers.

Avoid Hippos

The best way to avoid a hippo attack is to stay out of known hippo territory. Before going out on the water, ask local guides for advice. Find out what areas have had a lot of hippo sightings recently.

While you’re out on the water, give hippos plenty of space. If you spot one, don’t get close. If the hippo starts to yawn, that means it’s agitated. You should put more distance between you and these territorial creatures.

How to Survive a Hippo Attack: Make Noises

Another way to prevent a hippo attack is by making some noise. Let the hippos know you’re around. Hippos don’t see people as prey; if they don’t feel threatened, they don’t have any reason to attack you.

To avoid scaring hippos and triggering an attack, make a little noise with your paddle. Try beating the side of your boat or hitting the water’s surface a few times. The noise will let submerged hippos know you’re passing through so they can avoid you.

Choose Wide Open Areas

Avoid encountering a hippo on land by sticking to wide open areas. Walk in spots where you could see a hippo far off before approaching it. This also gives other wildlife a chance to spot and avoid you. Hippos are only aggressive if you’re close to their territory. They don’t see you as a threat if you’re far away.

Avoid Thick Vegetation

Stay away from vegetation along waterways. Hippos and other large animals use this vegetation as cover. The chances of running into a hippo, crocodile, or big cat are good around vegetation, so steer clear.

Spot Hippo Activity

Finally, keep your eyes open for signs of hippo activity. Hippos like using feces to mark their food sources. Look for droppings, and never set up camp near a dung trail. You should also avoid setting up camp near any known animal trails.

How to Escape a Charging Hippo on Land

To escape a charging hippo on land, climb a tree. If there isn’t a tree, run in a zig-zag line, and don’t look back. Keep running until you find shelter. And get to high ground if there’s no shelter nearby.

You can’t outrun a hippo, but you must get out of their space. If the hippo gets ahold of you, the odds of surviving are slim. That’s why the best thing you can do is get as far away as possible. So, when a hippo charges you, don’t stop moving until you’re somewhere safe.

How fast can a hippo run? Hippos can reach speeds of 30 mph. This impressive speed makes them faster than the best Olympic sprinter! It may seem bizarre that such a large animal can move so fast, but hippos are incredibly fast!

Hippo Charges Toward Water: Get Out of the Way

hippo charging towards camera with mouth open

A hippo’s jaw has an 1800 PSI bite force.


You’re standing by a river when a hippo starts running toward you. Is this hippo trying to attack? Not likely.

When hippos charge toward a water source, chances are the hippo wants to get in the water. You must vacay the area as fast as possible and clear the path.

Hippos spend most of their lives in the water. If you stay out of the way, the hippo can flee to the water without perceiving you as a threat.

But if you freeze up, the hippo might run right over you. So act fast! Always jump out of the way of a hippo running toward the water. This is no time to play dead.

Hippo in Shallow Water: Create Distance

If you see a hippo in shallow water, stay away. When water levels are low, hippos lose their cover and feel vulnerable. If a hippo is in shallow water, it’s more likely to lash out because it doesn’t feel safe.

Hippos out of the water can be one of the most dangerous hippos. Get out of the area as quickly as possible, and don’t get any closer!

How to Defend Yourself Against a Hippo

If a hippo attacks, flee. If the hippo catches you, fight back! Make them as uncomfortable as possible. Hopefully, they’ll give up their attack and spit you out. But until that happens, don’t back down.

Use your boat paddles as a weapon. Hit the hippo’s eyes with the paddle, shove the paddle, stabbing it into their mouth. If you don’t have a weapon, use your fists. Punch their eyes, hit their snout, and put up a fight.

A hippos bite is capable of snapping a crocodile in two. If your arms are in the hippo’s mouth, get them out of there right away! If you can’t get your arms out of the strong jaws, use your fingers to wreak havoc from the inside. Grab the back of their throat, stab and claw, and do whatever you must do.

If you can’t get away, keep fighting and never give up. Your best bet is for the hippo to stop wanting to attack because you’re putting up such a fuss. If a hippo is attacking your friend, throw things at it. Rocks, sticks, hurl anything you have at the hippo and don’t stop.

Don’t Play Dead

If a hippo attacks you, don’t play dead.The more of a fight you put up, the better your chances of survival.

Certain animal attacks warrant playing dead. For instance, when dealing with a grizzly bear, there’s a right time to assume the fetal position. However, this is never the case for a hippo. You have to make the hippo want to release you; fighting is the only way to do that.

How Common Are Hippo Attacks?

Africa has at least 500 hippo-related fatalities yearly.

©Graham / Creative Commons

Hippo attacks happen a lot. They’re the world’s deadliest land mammal for a reason. If hippos even feel the hint of a threat, they’ll attack. That’s why Africa has at least 500 hippo-related fatalities yearly, making hippos more deadly than lions or sharks!

The best way to avoid dying in a hippo attack is to prevent one from happening. Stay out of hippo territory; these amazing animals will leave you alone. If you accidentally come across one, do whatever you can to put distance between you and them. Hippos don’t want to attack people but won’t hesitate to take out a potential threat.

How Hippos Fight: Prepare Yourself

Hippos fight with their razor-sharp teeth. They can keep fighting for up to two hours, only needing small rests. Most hippo attacks on humans are over within minutes. We don’t stand a chance when it comes to hippos vs. humans.

These semi-aquatic mammals are great fighters, and they practice all the time. Young and old hippos have scars from the fights they’ve been in. Hippos can afford to fight thanks to their thick hide that keeps their muscles and organs safe.

When hippos attack people, they like to capsize their boats. Once the hippo has someone in the water, it has several ways to attack. The hippo can begin biting, crushing, or drowning the victim. That’s what happened to Kristen Yaldor when she was celebrating her 37th birthday in Africa.

Woman Punches Her Way to Safety During Hippo Attack

Kristen Yaldor and her husband were on a guided canoe tour. The group saw hippos in the distance on the right side of the river. Understanding the threat, the tour guide instructed the group to paddle away from the hippos.

Most hippos were happy, but one hippo felt the canoe was a threat. The angry hippo swam under the canoe, capsizing it. The woman fell out of the canoe and toward the hippo, and the attack began. The hippo pulled her underwater and wouldn’t let Kristen swim to shore.

Thankfully, Kristen knew what to do. She began punching the hippo in the face, and when it released her, she made a mad dash for the shore. Kristen escaped because she put up a good fight and stayed calm.

Throwing Stones Saves Young Boy During Hippo Attack

Hippo attacks are usually fatal. But sometimes, the victims are lucky enough to escape with their lives. This was the case when a hippo attacked a two-year-old boy in Uganda. The child was in the hippo’s jaws before a brave bystander saved the day.

The young boy was playing by his house in western Uganda when the attack occurred. The bystander was able to scare the hippo away by throwing stones at it. After dropping the child, the hippo quickly swam away. Thankfully the boy was able to recover fully from the attack.

Rising Hippo-Human Conflicts

Hippos and pelicans in the lake. Lake Naivasha national park, Kenya.

Lake Naivasha national park, Kenya.

©Kirill Skorobogatko/

One lake in Kenya is seeing a rise in hippo-human attacks. About 40 people were attacked at Lake Naivasha recently, with 14 fatalities. Most of the attacks were on fishermen.

Attack numbers like these in one area aren’t the norm. One of the reasons so many hippos have been attacking lately is a rise in rainfall. After unusual rainfalls, Lake Naivasha was able to swell to its biggest size in almost a century. The flooding waters forced hippos into the same shallow fishing areas as the fishermen.

Final Thoughts on How to Survive a Hippo Attack

What was one new thing you were able to learn about how to survive a hippo attack? Was it news to you that yawning hippos are angry, not sleepy? What about the fact that hippos are super fast?

It’s clear to see that the best way to survive a hippo encounter is by preventing it in the first place. Announce your presence when you’re out on the water. Stay out of known hippo spots. And if you have an encounter, get out of there fast! The longer you’re around a hippo in the wild, the more danger you’re in.

What else should you know about these amazing animals? Check out the articles below to become a hippo expert.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kirill Skorobogatko/

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About the Author

Crystal is a dedicated writer at A-Z Animals, focusing on topics related to mammals, insects, and travel. With over a decade of experience in the world of research and writing, she also fulfills the role of a skilled video and audio engineer. Residing in sunny Florida, alligators are Crystal's favorite animal.

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