How to survive a hippo attack?

My mom always used to say: don’t mess with something that can open its mouth 2 ft wide, has sharp, 20 inch long canines, weighs 3000-10.000 pounds, easily outruns or outswims you, and kills more humans than lions, sharks and all bears put together. 

Yep, that’s what she told me. In case yours didn’t, this story is for you! Cause when you’re face to face with a grunting hippopotamus amphibius, you may want to know your options, as you’re in very serious trouble if it sees you as a threat. An angry hippo will stomp you to death and rip you apart with its giant tusks using a bite force of 1800 pounds per square inch (PSI) before you even know what’s going on. 

When the Greeks sailed for Egypt, they saw an unfamiliar creature in the Nile, after which they called it horse (ἵππος, or híppos) of the river (ποταμός, or potamós).

Nowadays, hippos are found a bit further southward; in the lakes and rivers of Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan as well as in most of the southern African countries. These horses of the Nile, as they’re called in some languages, prefer shallow waters, where they live in pods of 40 to 200 individuals. Hippos are known to fiercely defend their young and habitats, so when venturing into hippo-land, you want to come prepared.

For more on how to survive>> How to Survive an Ostrich Attack

Why are hippos so aggressive?

Even though hippos are not necessarily aggressive by nature, they easily feel threatened, and have their good reasons to fear people. 160.000-year-old hippo bones show how our beloved ancestors instilled a great fear in hippos by hunting them for meat. Also, their habitat has been shrinking due to increasing human populations, to the point that they’ve been marked as vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List due to a population loss of 20-30% in the last two decades.

And then there’s the nasty business of hippo-poaching, with the purpose of selling the valuable ivory tusks for artistic or medicinal purposes. With all that in mind, you can’t really blame them for skewering a few humans every now and then to keep us out of the way.

Reasons for them to attack are:

  1. Get off my property!

Hippos are known to be territorial animals and can attack humans if they feel threatened, or if they perceive us as a potential danger to their calves.

  1. Healthy competition

Hippos are known to attack boats and people fishing in their territory if they feel that humans are competing for food or space.

  1. Nowhere to go

As human populations expand and natural habitats shrink, hippos may come into contact with humans more frequently, increasing the likelihood of attacks.

  1. Impale the poacher!

Activities such as poaching, encroaching on hippo habitats, or disturbing the animals while they are feeding or resting can provoke an attack. 

  1. Don’t corner me!

 Hippos will attack humans if they feel cornered or trapped, such as when you’re fishing, swimming or crossing a river.

What not to do when you’re near a hippo?

  1. By all means, stay away from their calves.
  2. Never surprise a hippo by sneaking up on it or by rowing silently nearby. 
  3. Avoid walking between the water and a hippo, as this is his prime territory.
  4. When in the water, especially avoid shallow waters, which are their favorite places. 
  5. Skip the area during mating season, which peaks during dry season. Males are at their peak anger during this period.
  6. If you see behavior that looks like yawning or laughing, it means the hippo is angry, and might prepare for an attack. 

How to act when near a hippo?

Give them their space

This might be very obvious, but needs to be mentioned again and again, as failing to do this, proves fatal to about 500 people a year. If you really want to see them, do so from a safe distance with binoculars, or bring a serious camera lens. No chance for selfies, I’m afraid. If you have to go near them, make sure they hear you from a far distance rather than suddenly appearing by their side.


Make yourself known when you’re in the water. Hippos can hold their breath for six minutes and chill on the bottom of the shallow waters or with only their nostrils sticking out of the water, which you may not notice. When they surface and suddenly see you, they will most likely feel threatened. Therefore, when rowing about in hippo territory, make splashing sounds with your pedals. Not with your hands, as you may attract unwanted crocodile attention by putting your juicy hand in the water.

Stay deep

The favorite spot of a hippo is where it can bounce around on the bottom of the relative shallows, so it can just submerge its huge body in the cool waters. Therefore, it is best to stay in the deeper parts if you know hippos could be around.

How to survive a hippo attack?

What do you do if you find yourself face-to-face with one of these giants? Well, first things first: don’t panic. Panicking will only make the situation worse. Instead, stay calm and follow these simple steps to survive a hippo attack.

Step 1: Recognize the warning signs

Hippos are not aggressive by nature, but they will attack if they feel threatened. If you see a hippo charging towards you, you probably missed some clues already. As mentioned before, these warning signs include:

The hippo puffing up its body: This is a sign that the hippo is feeling defensive.

The hippo making loud grunts or bellows: This is the hippo’s way of saying “back off.”

The hippo opening its jaws wide: This is a sign that the hippo is preparing to charge.

Step 2: Remain calm

If you do notice any of these warning signs, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm. Don’t run away just yet, nor make any sudden movements that may trigger the hippo. Rather, back off slowly.

Step 3: Climb a tree

If the hippo charges, your best bet is to climb a tree. Hippos can’t climb, so you’ll be safe up there. Just make sure the tree is sturdy enough to support your weight and that you’re able to climb it quickly. A large rock or steep hill could also work. 

Step 4: Run

Even Usain Bolt can’t outrun a hippo at top speed, so know what you’re in for. However, the massive weight of the hippo doesn’t make it a good long-distance runner, so if you manage to get a head start, it may give up. If it continues its pursuit, keep zigzagging, preventing it from reaching that top speed of 30 miles an hour. Again, due to its massive body weight, making sharp turns will cost the hippo much more energy than it costs you, meaning you’re efficiently tiring it out by circling around big trees and other objects. Compare it to a bicycle and a heavy truck on a roundabout! So maybe a good old baobab is standing around to save your dear life.

Step 5: Fight

If there is absolutely nothing to climb onto and no object to zigzag around, and the hippo is still on collision course, prepare yourself to either perish violently by its huge tusks and enormous crunch or to fight with whatever means you have. If you end up at this perilous point, know that you’re fighting against the odds, since hippos can even bite a giant Nile crocodile in two. Either way, now that you’re here, consider the following options.

  1. Shoot it

Duh, you should have done this when he started charging you. But it’s not too late. If possible, aim between the eyes or at least in the facial area, as the rest of its body is protected with a super Kevlar-type armor called hippo blubber.

  1. Use whatever object. 

If you have any sharp object, a rock or something nasty like pepper spray or some other chemical, use it! Again, aim for the facial area. He won’t even feel your fancy Swiss army knife in his back. 

  1. Hippo boxing

Last, but not least, your final stance. A bare-handed human against a raging hippo. Say your prayers. When he charges, claw and stomp at his eyes or nose. If you end up in his mouth, kick or claw down at his throat. Now you may use that Swiss knife if it’s still around. 

Could a hippo kill and eat you?

Hippos have been known to occasionally eat fish and other small animals, such as birds, reptiles, and invertebrates, but this is not a regular part of their diet. They are known to catch fish with their mouths, but this is not a hunting behavior per se, they do it more as opportunistic feeding.

Though some reports have emerged about hippos scavenging carcasses when hungry, and even snatching impalas or wildebeest when they cross the river. So, generally you would be very low on their menu, but in times of scarcity they may theoretically regard you as a snack if you get overly close.

Not convinced yet, then read all about the story of Australian Paul Templer who found himself a bit too close to a big hippo bull in Zambia. 


Unless you live in a remote African village near hippo territory, and you don’t climb fences at your local zoo, an unwanted encounter with an angry hippo can easily be avoided. Whenever venturing out into hippo-land, either by land or by water, be extremely cautious. Do you really have to cross their immediate habitat, or is there another way? How much do you want to push for that one great picture? 

Whatever the circumstance, make sure to never surprise them. Make plenty of sound and keep as much distance as possible. If the giant charges, it won’t be because he’s hungry but because you crossed the tender line of its comfort zone, meaning you’re intruding. Whenever this happens, run for a tree, or tire the hippo out by zigzagging and circling around large objects. 

If you stick to these guidelines, there’s no reason to become the 501st hippo victim this year.

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