Hippo Attacks: How Dangerous Are They To Humans?

hippo charging towards camera with mouth open
PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock.com

Written by Colby Maxwell

Updated: October 26, 2023

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Are hippos dangerous? Hippos hold a common perception of a 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 answer the question: Are hippos dangerous to humans? And exactly how dangerous are hippos?

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.

Are hippos dangerous to humans? Hippos do attack humans and are very dangerous. When it comes to these large river horses (what their name translates to in Greek), there are about 500 deaths per year to humans 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.

Are hippos dangerous in the water? When you enter a hippo’s territory in the water, 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 lakeshores). 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.

Hippos don’t have an ax to grind with humans; they are simply unpredictable and likely to attack an intruder. But are hippos dangerous to other wild animals?

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 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?

Hippo Attack

Hippos have been known to charge after humans!

In what way are 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?

Hippos come out of the water to feed on grass, but most attacks happen in or near the water.

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 any African country which has them anytime soon, you should be ok. However, if you’ve made such travel plans in the 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 travel during the 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.

Interesting Hippo Facts

  1. Hippos have a gestation period of 243 days. When a baby hippo, called a calf, is born, they weigh up to 50 pounds.
  2. This water horse is mostly an herbivore. Hippos eat an average of 80 pounds of grass nightly.
  3. There are two species of hippos. The common hippo and the pygmy hippo.
  4. Hippos are able to produce their own sunblock. They have adapted the ability to produce an oily liquid, “red sweat“, that acts as a natural sunblock.

Bonus: What is the Hippo’s Closest Living Relative?

Melon-headed whale.

Whales, including melon-headed whales, are the closest living relative to the hippo.

When considering a possible living relative of a hippo – you may think of rhinos or elephants – but the closest living relative of a hippo is a whale! Hippos and whales shared a common ancestor that lived about 55 million years ago. This amphibious common ancestor probably had the aquatic skin traits that hippos and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises)share.

Unlike most mammals, hippos and cetaceans have smooth, almost hairless skin that lacks a sebum-producing gland. Hippos did not follow their whale ancestors back into the water – so they developed independently from that point. While whales do not have sweat glands – hippos developed specialized glands that produce “blood sweat,” an orange substance that has natural microbial and sunscreen properties. Whales also lost most of what little hair they had while hippos have whiskers, ear hair, and hair on the tips of their tails.


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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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