Understanding Hippo’s

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 7 Comments

What is the animal you are most likely to encounter on almost every single safari?

Who occupies just about every river system and large waterhole in Africa’s greatest parks and game reserves?

This animal also happens to be one of the least photographed of those more commonly seen.

Yip, I am talking about the big old grumpy hippo.



These bulky beasts are far too often overlooked. People understandably always seek out more striking photographic subjects such as lion, leopard or elephants. Why bother with hippo’s hiding under the water, usually only revealing the very top of their heads and oddly shaped eyes.

Hippo are also not the easiest of photographic subjects.
Lets be honest, they are not the most attractive of Africa’s animals and 9 out of 10 times don’t present you with any opportunity either. When they do, they are likely to run back into the water or perhaps even run over you to get back to the water.
So yes, this is no easy undertaking.

How then do we photograph them and most importantly, how can you get great images of these moody, aggressive and often shy animals?



As with any of the animals I photograph when out in the field, I feel it is essential to understand them first and foremost. This is especially important when it comes to animals that are as dangerous as a hippo.

Apart from Cape Buffalo, a hippo follows close behind as one of the animals I would least like to encounter when on foot. Their nervous nature & hot temperament makes them very unpredictable and the last thing you want to do is find yourself right in its path back into the water, its place of safety. This will not work out very well for you!

Be as careful as you possibly can when photographing them! Pay special attention to changes in behaviour.

Tell tale signs to look out for would be the following…

  • Loud Snorting.
  • Nervous animals – only coming up to breathe and sinking back below the surface of the water again.
  • Raising its head out of the water, often in an attempt to assess the situation and to get a better look at you.
  • Displaying its teeth. This is often a very clear threat display intended to intimidate. Trust me, it works.
  • A mock charge is a very real threat and good reason to pack up your bags and get out of there.





They will also often shake their heads violently in the water in a very direct attempt to intimidate. These displays make for impressive photography but yet again, be very careful as a charge could follow soon. Always remember that it is best to photograph animals doing what they would do naturally. It is not that difficult to get an aggressive hippo bull to charge at you, but is that really the shot you want?





If the situation allows, try to get a little lower to the ground. This angle will create stunning results!

Once again, only do this if you know there are no other threats surrounding the water that could sneak up on you, you are aware of crocodiles and your position in relation to the water, and most preferably in the company of a guide/ranger/lookout.

Try and photograph them at first light, or perhaps in the late afternoon towards last light. I have found hippo to be most active during these periods and the light is magnificent.







So how much do you know about hippo’s?

Lets dig a little deeper and get to know them some more.

They are very often found in large groups. These groups of hippo are more commonly referred to as ‘pods’ or ‘rafts’ of hippo. They are extremely dependent on water, and where possible, water at a depth where it will at least cover the tops of their backs.
Hippo can’t float and therefore deep waters are out of the question for them. They can push themselves to the surface in deeper water thanks to the buoyancy effect, but will slowly float back to the bottom again.
For the most part they are strictly bottom dwellers enjoying water that’s not too fast-flowing and not too shallow nor to deep.



During the dry-season it is not uncommon to see up to 30 or 40 hippo’s crammed into small spaces, and in extreme cases a few hundred hippo within a very small area is not uncommon either.
Water is a hippo’s source of life! The sun on the other hand, is not!

A hippo’s skin is extremely sensitive to overexposure to the sun. It will burn and dehydrate. This does not mean that they never end up in the sun.

Sun bathing is a favourite activity for hippos during the daytime. They enjoy basking in the sun as it helps to warm them up from external elements.
Incredibly they have a natural “sunscreen”, very visible on hippo’s skin when they’ve been out of the water for some time.It appears as little drops on their skin, especially on their back. It is pink in colour and very oily. They exude this oily substance and is nature’s way of protecting the hippo from sunburn! Incredible!



Some hippo’s have no choice but to spend many months of the year in small muddy wallows. These hippo’s are the ones that you really want to try and avoid.
Typically made up out of solitary bulls, they are under immense pressure from the aggressive territorial bulls and will find it very hard to share the larger, deeper pools with these intolerant dominant bulls.



Let me explain.

Hippo’s are dependent on water during the daytime hours. Once darkness has set in they will leave and move out towards favoured feeding pastures. Though their outward appearance could suggest otherwise, these giants are in fact vegetarians and enjoy a diet of grass, almost exclusively.

The territorial bulls are far more relaxed when away from the water seeing as there’s not that much to protect. That said, once back in their respective rivers and waterholes, the game changes.
They will not tolerate any sub-adult bulls or even older bulls as they pose a threat to his position, and they may try and court his females or even kill his offspring. These “Kings of the River” will go out of their way in order to protect their territories, and will do so in a show of extreme power!

The sounds and sights accompanying these brawls will leave your jaw dropped to the floor!









This is also where the size and function of the over-sized teeth come in to play. At first sight they are extremely impressive and should be – that’s what they are meant for. Their teeth are razor sharp and have the ability to inflict severe and very often fatal injuries.

As I said before, be very careful when photographing hippo bulls, especially whilst caught up in small muddy wallows and spaces. They are large aggressive creatures and won’t hesitate to charge, regardless of you being on foot or in a car!

I hope that next time you visit a reserve or national park, you spend a little more time getting to know these often overlooked animals. With a little work, understanding and good timing you can get some great shots of them!

Let’s recap real quick…

  • Be careful when photographing hippo as they are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, said to be responsible for more deaths than any other large mammal.
  • Try and photograph them in great light. Early mornings & late afternoons are great, and crisp cold winter mornings will add mist and colour to your shots.
  • Look for unique angles, get down low to the ground. Careful of charging hippo’s and crocodiles when close to the waters edge.
  • Include the stunning environments hippo often find themselves within.
  • Young hippo’s are often playful and make for great photographic subjects.







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About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

Comments 7

  1. Indranil Dutta

    Awesome read Marlon. Very interesting and informative. I have never come across an article on hippos. Thanks a lot


    1. Post
      Marlon duToit

      Absolute pleasure Indranil! All animals in Africa have something special about them. Sadly hippo’s are not featured as often, but as just as deserving of praise as any other!

  2. Candice

    STUNNING photo’s. I am all to aware of the dangers. Know the statistics too, but when I see a hippo its as if the brain and body go their separate ways. You have a lens. I have smartphone, which has a limited zoom, it has led to rather close encounters think nearest shot was taken about 1.5-2m away still not that great but was the moment I think.
    Having coffee next to river with the pod of Hippo only a meter or 2 away in Nelspruit – then realising the calves were among them. No barriers or fences just a bench, coffee and the huge animals people tremble in fear at.
    I would love to learn the art of photography, the way of the lens but the phone has forced me to go closer to the things I wont mention to get the photos I do. ( lol and then still have to zoom when I am all of a spitting distance away)

    1. Peter Connan

      Candice please, please be careful

      No photo is worth being killed or seriously injured for.

      Marlon your photos are absolutely stunning!

  3. Howard

    Great images. What gear are you using? I hope to get back to SA to photograph those beautiful animals. To. busy photographing. yachting in Australia.


    P.s. Enjoyed. drinking. Carling Black Label when I lived in. Joburg.

    Please have one for me & hope the boks. go we’ll in the. World Cup. Cricket.

  4. Carol Bell

    Thanks Marlon for the info. I do love your photo’s………I watch hippos often in Kruger and hope one day to be able to get down to their level to photo. I will remember the tips you have give.

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