Posted in Africa, Travel

The Deadliest Animal in Africa

The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake, nor a leopard, nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that sound like submerged tubas.  Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year.  In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.

Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill.  They’re vegetarians, emerging at night from ponds and rivers to eat grass.  Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well at all, but their sense of smell is acute.  Males defend territory, females their calves.  Both can outrun you, and you never know what might set off a 6,000 pound animal that can achieve a speed of 19 mph.

In 2002, I was traveling through the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana on a mobile camping safari.  Six people in an open-sided Landcruiser focused their cameras on laid-back hippo blimps floating in a nearby pond.  It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs.  A short distance away a male grazed on flowers.  I raised my camera.

Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines.  A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle.

He was closing fast.  All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the camer’s autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.

Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed our back bumper.  He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone.  This is the only picture I have of him, right before he charged.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

19 thoughts on “The Deadliest Animal in Africa

  1. What an amazing photo. I bet you’ll never forget this experience……ever.

  2. Hippos are most dangerous if you get between them and the water, so try not to be in that position. I spent the night on a tiny island, with hippos roaring next to me all night (they sound a bit like lions). It was pretty terrifying.

    1. Males are territorial and aggressive because of that. Females aggressively protect their young. This guy was not quite as big as some of the other bulls, and had a couple of fresh wounds. Speculating he’d just been kicked out of a nearby river and was cranky. It’s also not good to get between a hippo and it’s water source – they feel vulnerable out of water. However, when we came upon this guy, he was in between the water and us – so, theoretically he shouldn’t have charged.

  3. I never knew! But I shouldn’t be surprised. The most dangerous animal in Alaska is also a vegetarian. Moose injure and kill far more people than bears.

  4. HI Cheryl Oh i miss this picture and also what you wrote – i read about the hippo being the most dangerous animal and it really surprised me. I love your site and will continue to come back.

  5. I think it’s only the females that charge and they only charge when they are getting their picture taken. I believe it has something to do with their weight. HF

    1. Actually, I was holding onto a post in the Landcruiser with one hand, trying to get the camera to focus with the other! This photo was right before he charged, so the hippo, the vehicle and I were relatively motionless!

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