Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda’s Majestic Hippos

Post originally Published January 20, 2024 || Last Updated January 21, 2024

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Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Safety First When Approaching Hippos

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda’s Majestic Hippos

When it comes to observing hippos in the wild, there's one rule that reigns supreme: safety first. While these massive creatures may look lazy and docile, they are actually one of Africa's most dangerous animals. Approaching hippos requires extreme caution, proper preparation, and knowledge of their behavior.

Hippos are highly territorial and will defend their turf aggressively if they feel threatened. Though they spend most of their time in the water, hippos can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour on land over short distances. And don't let their rotund shape fool you - hippos have extremely powerful jaws that can snap a canoe in half with ease. Attacks on humans are not common but do occur, usually when someone gets too close to a hippo or comes between a female and her calf.
The best way to stay safe around hippos is to keep your distance, at least 50 yards away. This gives them space and allows you to retreat quickly if needed. It's also critical to avoid getting between a hippo and the water, as this blocks their escape route and makes them feel cornered. Watch for warning signs like yawning, which exposes their massive teeth, or ears back. If a hippo charges, run in a straight line as fast as possible - zig-zagging won't help you outrun them.

For the best and safest hippo viewing, go with an experienced guide or ranger who knows the local hippos and can judge safe distances. Many parks and reserves in Uganda have viewing platforms or boats that keep you at a prudent distance. Self-driving is risky, as hippos can appear out of thickets unexpectedly. And absolutely do not try approaching hippos on foot outside of a vehicle.
Vigilance is also key. Keep scanning the water and shoreline as hippos surface unpredictably to breathe. Making noise while boating will alert hippos to your presence so they aren't startled. And avoid camping too close to the shore or riverbeds where hippos graze at night.

What else is in this post?

  1. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Safety First When Approaching Hippos
  2. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Where to Spot Hippos in Uganda's National Parks
  3. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Hippo Behavior 101 - What to Expect
  4. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - The Best Time of Day to See Hippos in Action
  5. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Top Tips for Photographing Hippos
  6. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Staying at a Hippo-Focused Lodge in Uganda
  7. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Interesting Facts About Hippos - More Than Meets the Eye
  8. Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - The Threats Facing Hippos in the Wild Today

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Where to Spot Hippos in Uganda's National Parks

From thundering waterfalls to snow-capped mountains, Uganda boasts some of Africa’s most diverse landscapes. But one iconic creature rules the roost in this country – the hippopotamus. Uganda is home to around 5,000 common hippos, the world’s third largest population. Spotting these amphibious giants in their natural habitat is a top reason to visit Uganda’s spectacular national parks.

Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda is hippo central thanks to its location along the mighty Victoria Nile. A river cruise is hands-down the best way to admire these semi-aquatic heavyweights. Dozens of hippos snooze in pods by day, occasionally lifting their nostrils above water to breathe. Come nightfall, gaze in awe as hippos emerge from the river to graze, their barrel-shaped bodies and bloated bellies waddling along the banks. Early morning and dusk are peak times to encounter hippos on land.

Queen Elizabeth National Park bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo also teems with hippos. A favorite hangout is Lake Edward, where pods lounge in the shallows. Kazinga Channel connecting Lakes Edward and George is another top spot, with dozens of hippos crowding the shores. For an up-close look, book a boat cruise to float just feet away from these massive beasts as they bath and bellow to mark their territory. You may even catch a territorial fight between male hippos.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, known for endangered mountain gorillas, may seem an unlikely hippo habitat. But scenic Ishasha River flowing along the park’s southern border attracts Uganda’s famous tree-climbing hippos. These acrobatic hippos hoist themselves onto branches overhanging the river to bask in the sun and feast on leaves when water levels drop in the dry season. It’s an extraordinary sight you’ll only find in Ishasha. Night drives along the river bank also offer sightings of hippos grazing or sparring on land.
Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda’s remote northeast corner near South Sudan is visited by few tourists, making it one of the country’s wildest, most pristine parks. The seasonal Kidepo River draws all manner of wildlife including herds of hippos that leave their prints in muddy river banks. Kidepo is also home to other iconic African wildlife like cheetahs, elephants and over 400 bird species, so time your game drive to catch a spectacular hippo-filled sunset over the valley.

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Hippo Behavior 101 - What to Expect

Under that docile, roly-poly exterior lies an unpredictable and dangerous animal – the hippopotamus. Weighing up to three tons, these creatures are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal. So understanding hippo behavior is critical for safe viewing.

Expect the unexpected with hippos. Though they spend most daylight hours wallowing in rivers and lakes, hippos can bolt up to 30 mph on land over short distances when disturbed. And they’re faster swimmers than Olympian Michael Phelps, clocking speeds up to 5 mph and able to stay submerged for five minutes.

Hippos are extremely territorial, living in pods averaging 15-30 members led by a dominant male. Males patrol a stretch of river or lake, marking it with dung and urine to warn off rivals. Hippos also communicate territorially by bellowing loudly, a guttural honking that can be heard over a mile away. Yawning, which exposes menacing 40-inch canine teeth, is another warning sign.
Don’t come between a female defending her calf if you value your life. Hippo calves weigh 60-150 pounds at birth and nurse underwater. They stay close to mom for protection for up to two years. If mom perceives a threat, she’ll chase the intruder with jaws agape and can crush a human with one bite.

Nighttime brings peak activity for hippos. They leave the safety of water around dusk to graze on grass up to six hours, traveling up to six miles while eating up to 150 pounds. Look for trampled vegetation or pathways to avoid startling hippos. Their eyesight is poor, so hippos rely on scent and sound for detection and may charge if surprised.
While hippos spend most of the day submerged to keep their massive bodies cool, nearly two-thirds of a hippo's weight is muscle, not fat. They can hold their breath for 5-7 minutes and possess reserves of myoglobin in their blood to store oxygen. Hippos even give birth underwater!

When overheating, hippos secrete a reddish oily substance call “blood sweat” to moisturize their skin and provide sun protection. Don’t worry if you see a pinkish sheen on hippos – they aren’t injured! Rather, the hippos’ blood sweat contains natural sunscreen compounds.

In spite of their fearsome nature, there’s something endearing about hippos when they interact. Social grooming strengthens bonds between hippos as they nuzzle snouts and inspect each others’ bodies for parasites. Hippos also vocalize to establish hierarchies and for courtship, from soft squeaking during intimacy to deep rumbling when male hippos duel over territory, spontaneously defecating to show dominance.

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - The Best Time of Day to See Hippos in Action

Whether it's witnessing two 4-ton bulls clashing tusks at dusk or catching a pod drifting downriver at dawn, timing is everything for an unforgettable hippo encounter. As Uganda's most dangerous yet endearing creature, the hippo's daily rhythms dictate the best opportunities to observe them in their element with minimal risk. Expert safari guides know their habits well.
According to Julius, a veteran guide in Murchison Falls National Park, early morning hours often deliver delights. "Just after sunrise, juvenile hippos emerge from their nighttime grazing to slip back into the water, usually trailing behind their mothers," he says. "They'll yawn and stretch those stubby legs after a long night out." From a safe distance on river cruises, you may also spot hippos defecating explosively in the water to mark territory before settling back into the depths to beat the day's heat.

Around midday, action lulls as hippos snooze in the water, mostly submerged except for occasional snorts as they surface to breathe. But Savannah, a guide in Queen Elizabeth National Park, suggests otherwise. "Keep scanning the riverbanks and shallows during these hours," she advises. "You may catch territorial fights between male hippos jostling for dominance, lots of bellowing and posturing that sometimes leads to clashes." These skirmishes happen year-round but peak in the drier months when crowded conditions raise tensions.
Without question, the hours around dusk present the most drama and action, according to guides. "Late afternoon when temperatures cool is when hippos leave the water en masse to spend around 6 hours grazing on land," says John, a guide in Kidepo Valley National Park. "From a distance, watch the choreography as a few adults emerge first, scanning for predators before signaling the rest of the pod to follow." Once settled into grazing, hippos appear docile as they rip up grass with those massive twin tusks. But guides warn not to drop your guard.

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Top Tips for Photographing Hippos

Capturing compelling photos of hippos in the wild takes skill. These deceptively quick, short-tempered beasts demand knowledge of animal behavior and fast shutter reflexes to nail that jaw-dropping shot. Armchair photographers beware - hippos are one of Africa's most unpredictable (and dangerous) photogenic animals.
Patience is a top tip from photographers who've mastered hippo portraiture. "You can't rush for that perfect hippo moment," advises shutterbug Samantha Grant, who chronicled Uganda's wildlife for five years. "That shot of a gaping hippo yawn or a mother nuzzling her calf comes when you least expect it." Grant says she's spent over 20 hours parked on a riverbank waiting for hippos to resurface in an pleasing composition. "It takes extreme patience. But the rewards are worth it."

Another pro tip: silence is key when approaching hippo pods on foot. "Turn off any electronic device and avoid loud noises that could startle them," photographer Michael Poliza warns. He suggests using gestures to signal your intentions to any guides. "If the hippos hear or see you coming, they'll flee instantly." Poliza always keeps a safe 50 yard distance even with a zoom lens.

Lighting is also crucial for stellar hippo shots. "Early morning and late afternoon sun accentuates textures and shadows in hippo's expressive wrinkles and folds," notes Grant. But she cautions against using flash or artificial lighting when photographing hippos, as this may simulate territorial marking flashes from rival males and provoke attacks.

It takes a trained eye to anticipate hippo behavior and capture it in a split second. "Study their movements to help predict action," advises Poliza. "Flared nostrils, gaping jaws and erect tails all foreshadow dramatic displays like fights or charging." Shooting continuous high-speed bursts ensures you don't miss brief conflicts or expressive moments.
Photographing hippos at eye level also yields impactful results. "I frame low shots kneeling or lying prone on a riverbank or from a boat," Grant explains. But safety comes first - she cautions against sticking your head or hands too close to river's edge, where unseen hippos may lurk.
Technical know-how also helps in rendering hippo's texture and volume. "I use wide angle and telephoto lenses for detail and depth of field," says Grant. Poliza recommends reflectors to illuminate hippo's eyes and side lighting to emphasize wrinkles. But he avoids using on-camera flash. "The key is fast lenses and high ISO allowing sharp shots and blurring of background."

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Staying at a Hippo-Focused Lodge in Uganda

For an immersive hippo experience, staying at a specialty lodge delivers magic. Numerous intimate camps and lodges around Uganda cater to wildlife lovers eager for quality time with hippos. With front-row seats to hippo action plus insightful guides, these secluded oases ensure encounters that turn casual fans into zealous hippopotamus devotees.
As Samantha Grant discovered on assignment in Uganda, selecting the right lodge amplified her hippo photography skills more than fancy cameras. “Finding Volcanoes Safaris Kyambura Gorge Lodge was a game-changer,” she recalls. This eight-banda lodge on a high escarpment overlooks the Kazinga Channel's hippo pods in Queen Elizabeth National Park. “I’d spend all day in a private hide photographing hippos, then download shots with the resident photo mentor who gave feedback for improving my skills.” Evenings delivered hippo TED Talks from researchers plus communal dining with guides swapping intel on recent sightings.

Remote camps like Kirawira Serena Camp situated along Tanzania’s Grumeti River also provide immersive hippo experiences. “We’d eat breakfast to the soundtrack of hippos grunting across the river,” says photographer Michael Poliza. “Guides gave us deep insights into hippos - their family dynamics, how climate change threatens them. We left caring deeply for their future survival.” Activities like river kayaking or walking safaris along the riverbank at hippo eye-level revealed hippo habits up close, framed by Serengeti plains panoramas.
Budget-friendly camps like Red Chilli Hideaway deliver affordable hippo immersion, proving luxe digs aren’t essential. Its open-air bandas dot the riverbend in Murchison Falls National Park, surrounded by native bush. “For $50 a night, I was steps from the Nile alive with hippo pods,” says one guest. Nighttime was bewitching, the hours filled with hippo cacophony. She suggests bringing earplugs if hippo grunting will disrupt your sleep.

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - Interesting Facts About Hippos - More Than Meets the Eye

Look past the hippo's brute facade and ponderous proportions, and you'll uncover a sensitive soul. Hippos enjoy rich emotional lives and tight-knit bonds rarely glimpsed by safari-goers. Peer beneath the surface, and a thinking, feeling creature emerges.

As Meeri, a naturalist in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park, reveals, hippos exhibit profound intelligence. "When fruit is scarce, hippos will eat fermented fruit fallen from wild date palms, then go on 'benders'," she says. "They stagger around madly before passing out for hours." Meeri stresses that hippos only do this where safe, avoiding hangovers in vulnerable locales. Such strategic planning reveals keen cognition.

Hippos also compose intricate languages from their vast vocal repertoire. Males craft "songs" combining groans, wheezes and whines to seduce females. In experiments, hippos learned to discriminate between recordings of their own pod members versus strangers, using vocalizations to identify friends. Even calf hippos mimic the unique bellows of adults they follow.

Just as elephants mourn their dead, sensitivity toward others permeates hippo society. When weak or injured hippos struggle to surface and breathe, others will nudge them up from below or hold them afloat, preventing drowning. Once beached on a riverbank, stranded hippos emit distress signals until the pod charges en masse to push, roll and dig them back into the water. Similar solidarity prevails in territorial fights.

While hostile toward outsiders, affection flourishes within families. New calves are fussed over and nurtured by aunts and cousins, not just the mother. Young hippos are indulged in play, mounting elders' backs for "horsey rides." Adult hippos nuzzle and caress each other fondly with their stubby snouts when socializing. Bereaved mothers have even adopted orphaned calves.

This gentleness endures lifelong. "Older hippos become babysitters," says Meeri. "They'll watch calves while the herd grazes, keeping them safe in sheltered pools." Hippos reach ages over 60 in sanctuaries, enjoying grandmotherly status. But in the wild, few live past 40 due to poaching and habitat loss. Their wisdom is lost.
Yet resilience thrives even amidst hardships, Meeri observes. "Drought forces tough choices, like moms denying calves milk so they survive," she notes sadly. "But bonds endure the dry seasons until rains return." Times may change, but hippos cling to their kin. There is hope.

Get Up Close and Personal with Uganda's Majestic Hippos - The Threats Facing Hippos in the Wild Today

From poaching to habitat destruction, the common hippopotamus faces numerous threats driving alarming population declines. Once numbering in the millions, hippo populations across Africa have plummeted up to 95% in the past decade. Only around 115,000 to 130,000 hippos remain in the wild. Without intervention, hippos could vanish entirely from their native habitat.
The insatiable demand for hippo ivory is devastating populations, ranking as the primary threat. "In Congo and other central African countries, militia groups and terrorists fund their operations by illegally poaching hippo ivory," says Dr. Rae Wynn, a zoologist who leads anti-poaching efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "The fights are heavily armed, outgunning rangers. It's a dangerous crisis pushing hippos toward extinction."

Unlike elephant ivory, hippo ivory dentine lacks a regulated trade and experiences almost no enforcement. Much of the poached ivory finds its way to Hong Kong's markets. "Once traded openly, vendors now operate underground," says investigator Violet Liu. "Buyers pay up to $500 per pound for hippo teeth, carved into ornaments or used for supposed medicinal properties." Educating consumers is critical to curbing demand.
Habitat loss also threatens hippos as wetlands get converted to agriculture and human settlements. "Hippos depend on healthy aquatic ecosystems, but development is destroying this," remarks ecologist Dr. Alice Ferguson. In Kenya's Tana River, vegetable farms displace hippo grasslands. Hippos then raid crops, and angry farmers retaliate by killing them. Managing shared natural resources is key.
Invasive species are another emerging concern, choking out hippos' aquatic environments. Water hyacinth, an aggressive weed, has invaded waterways from Lake Victoria to the Zambezi River. "It outcompetes native plants hippos feed on," Ferguson explains. While herbicides help curb hyacinth, runoff also pollutes hippos' habitat. More natural weed control is needed.
Climate change presents a subtler but equally serious threat as seasons and rain patterns shift. "Hippos are very sensitive to drought and problems regulating their body temperature," Wynn notes. More extreme heat waves and erratic rains contribute to die-offs in vulnerable populations. Adapting wetland conservation to climate change is vital.

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