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.