Animal Behaviour: Hippo vs. Elephant

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 1 Comment

So what happens when two of Africa’s largest land mammals meet?

An elephant is by far the larger of the two animals, with a reputation for dominating anything smaller than itself.
A hippo is no push over either and will more than happily stand its ground in defense.


Lets analyze the confrontation pictured above.

Looking at the lack of water in the riverbed, as well as the dry surrounding vegetation it is clear that this confrontation occurred during the dry season. The exact date was October 27.

Male hippo’s lacking a stretch of river to defend are usually highly aggressive during this time of year. They are not tolerated by the territorial bulls occupying the deep waters of the river system, so need to make do with what they have. In this case, this particular hippo made use of a mud wallow on the edge of the river bank. As can be seen he is covered in mud on the sides, yet not on his upper back, likely the result of a small wallow and low water level.

Hippo in this state are extremely aggressive and to be avoided at all costs. Deep water is their stronghold, their place of safety. Having none of it this hippo’s disposition definitely leans towards the side of being easily agitated.

The elephant bull on the other hand is young and confrontational. At this age they often test their strength against not only other elephants, but just about any other living and moving thing. This young bull wanted unhindered access to the drying pool, now occupied by the hippo. The hippo, who was getting ready to go out for an evening of grazing (they feed on grass, usually at night), moved back towards his pool against the side of the river wall.

What happened next was absolutely fantastic!

Wild Eye - Marlon du Toit

The hippo rushed forward, mouth agape and very annoyed by this imprudent elephant. The elephant was caught completely off guard and in his attempt to gain ground behind him almost tipped over backwards. The hippo’s sheer bulk and size became very evident to the young elephant. He had picked a fight he was not set to win.

I consulted with Alan Yeowart, arguably South Africa’s most knowledgeable guide, guide trainer and animal behavioural expert.

“As a guideline, one needs to treat the bush especially careful during periods of environmental stress”, says Alan. “Expect unusually aggressive or unpredictable behaviour. These two species would generally pay very little attention to one another – elephant, based on their size, are usually given right of way, or they’ll just take it. Periods of environmental stress do however present a new series of rules. This young elephant bull would be boisterous and sometimes a bit bossy at waterpoints, as a general trait. Typically hippo would retire to deeper water as a sanctuary. As a result of the conditions not allowing for this sanctuary this hippo would feel stressed and at risk, causing fractious behaviour. Elephants would not be used to these sorts of advances, so it would certainly be something of a surprise to a tempestuous adolescent bull such as this one.”

All ended well and happy for both parties. The hippo left the scene and the elephant bull feeling rather sorry for himself, sauntered off back towards the rest of the herd.

This is the beauty of being out on safari.

The unexpected can happen at any moment, and at any time.

Until next time,

Marlon du Toit

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