Hippo Attacks: How Dangerous Are They to Humans?

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: January 12, 2022
Image Credit PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock.com
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Hippos hold a common perception of cute and bubbly demeanor, but that is quite a far cry from the truth. Although their rounded features and cute babies may seem so inviting, it’s not a good idea to get near these giants. They are known to be quite dangerous and don’t have the best history when it comes to humans. Let’s take a look at this history and learn: how dangerous are hippos to humans?

Do hippos attack humans?

Hippo Attacks: How Dangerous Are They to Humans?
Hippos are some of the deadliest animals in Africa, killing at least 500 people a year.

Gaston Piccinetti/Shutterstock.com

Hippos do attack humans. When it comes to these large river horses (what their name translates to in Greek), there are about 500 deaths per year in Africa. The number is shockingly large and outpaces nearly any other animal on earth. In fact, hippos are known as some of the deadliest land animals in the world, with the mosquito being the overall winner for a long time now (currently, it’s 725,000 per year).

With these sorts of numbers, it’s easy to answer the question: do hippos attack humans? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

How dangerous are hippo attacks?

Generally, it’s best to avoid hippos totally. If a hippo does happen to attack, the odds of living through it depend on whether you can get away or not. Sadly, if a hippo is able to grab you, the odds of escaping alive are slim.

Hippos really only attack people that have entered into what they consider their territory. On land, hippos aren’t generally territorial, but getting close is still a bad idea. Despite their stocky legs, an angry hippo can easily outpace a human, averaging 20 mph in short bursts, whereas a human can typically only run 6-8 mph.

When you enter a hippo’s territory in the water, however, things can turn nasty fast. They typically keep to sections of rivers that are around 55-110 yards of shore (that number triples when it comes to lakeshore). They will relax and patrol their territory, readily displacing trespassers.

The most common hippo attacks come from the water with humans on boats. Since hippos are submerged, it can be incredibly hard to see them from the surface. If a human floats by while fishing, it’s easy to miss the massive animal at rest. Suddenly, the hippo will launch itself at the boat, usually capsizing it. Once a human is in the water, there is little they can do to stop the attack.

There are a few ways a human can die from a hippo attack. Typically, being crushed or bitten are standard. If the attack happens in the water, drowning is also a possibility.

What other animals do hippos attack?

Hippo Attacks: How Dangerous Are They to Humans?
Hippos aren’t known to be territorial on land but will attack any intruders into their watery domain.

Hans Hillewaert / Creative Commons

Hippos don’t have an ax to grind with humans; they are simply unpredictable and likely to attack an intruder.

Besides humans, hippos are known to attack lions, hyenas, and crocodiles. Lions and hyenas generally avoid hippos with how easy it would be for a full-grown adult to kill a pack of either of them. Still, there are occasional instances where desperate lions and hyenas will find an isolated hippo and try to kill it. It doesn’t usually result in much, but a hippo usually doesn’t have a problem defending itself.

The most common interaction that hippos have is with the crocodile. Since they share territory, conflict is more common. Generally, there isn’t much friction between the two species. Still, there are occasional instances of violence. If a female hippo has a calf, any encroaching crocodiles are likely to be chased away. If they don’t learn their lesson, it isn’t uncommon for a hippo to outright kill an annoying croc.

What makes hippos dangerous?

Hippos have two features that make them so deadly: their tusks and their weight.

Hippos have tusks that grow from modified teeth at the front of their mouths. Their incisors (the human equivalent of front teeth) and canines (the sharp teeth at the corner of a human mouth) are modified and grow over a foot each. They are extremely hard ivory, surpassing even that of an elephant. They never stop growing and are sharpened when they grind them against one another, making them even deadlier. Hippos use these tusks to fight other males but will also use them to attack intruders.

While tusks are scary, the sheer size of a hippo is enough to make them formidable. On average, they weigh 3,300 lbs, but large males never truly stop growing. Even if they don’t get you with tusks, an accidental bump is enough to break bones, and an all-out attack is enough to kill.

Where do hippo attacks happen?

Hippo Attacks: How Dangerous Are They to Humans?
Hippos come out of the water to feed on grass, but most attacks happen in or near the water.

Jamin / Creative Commons

Hippo attacks happen in Africa, mostly between local populations that subsist from fishing. Here’s a small segment that describes a hippo encounter with local fishermen in Kenya:

They couldn’t afford a boat, so they’d wade into the water up to their chests to see what fish—tilapia, carp, catfish—had swum into their nets overnight. “We had a lucky catch that day,” Mwaura said. “But before we got the full catch, the hippo came again. “

“Babu always told me hippos are dangerous animals,” Mwaura said. Hippos had attacked Babu four times, but he had always managed to escape. “But the fifth one—he did not make it.”

National Geographic

The hippo was able to bite down on Babu, puncturing his back three times with its tusks. Almost all hippo attacks happen when humans venture too close to a shoreline with hippos. Other run-ins happen when humans are floating by them in boats.

How can you avoid a hippo attack?

If you aren’t planning to take a trip to Africa anytime soon, you should be ok. If Africa is in your near future, however, you would want to avoid any places frequented by hippos. If you spot a hippo, yawning is a sign of aggression and them telling you you are too close. If you are in Africa during mating season, the males can be particularly aggressive. Finally, stay away from calves (if that wasn’t clear). A mother will kill in order to protect her calf.

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