WARNING: CONTAINS DISTRESSING VIDEO
Written by Peter Geraerdts, professional photographic safari guide at Track and Trail River Camp
Hippos don’t usually eat meat, as they are strict herbivores. However, there have been accounts of hippos eating animals, including their own species, and it is thought that their carnivory is driven by factors such as dietary deficiencies. Hippos are also extremely territorial, and brutal fights can break out in pods – and there can be casualties.
It was in November when I was in South Luangwa in Zambia and came across a baby hippo lying in the shallow water by the side of a river. It didn’t look well and wondered what might be wrong with it. There was no sight of its mom either. At first I thought this could have been the work of a crocodile when the mom wasn’t watching, or perhaps she herself had died.
It was unusually dry for November, as normally this is the month when the rains start, but this area had only received a few showers so far. When water levels are low, hippos tend to migrate to more permanent water sources – though usually these areas are already occupied by other resident hippos.
Territorial male hippos will defend these spots with full force against new arrivals if need be, using their massive teeth and immense biting power in combat.
I continued watching the baby hippo, who wasn’t moving at all, when the next thing an adult hippo popped up out of the water and approached it. At first we thought that this could be the mom as it was very gently sniffing and licking it, and even lay next to it for a while.
Then the baby hippo moved a bit, and suddenly the adult viciously attacked it, biting and swinging it around. Other hippos from the pod started to attack the adult hippo, but unfortunately their efforts couldn’t save the baby. It died after a couple of minutes, and sunk to the bottom of the river.
Cases of hippo infanticide are not unheard of, especially when water resources are scarce, or where territory takeovers or changes in dominance hierarchy are happening.
One theory is that infanticide in hippos may be a strategy by which the males increase reproductive success – by getting rid of babies that are not their own and having the female go into oestrus again, ready to mate with the male and ensure his gene pool is expanded.
In this case, the baby could have been introduced into the new pod by its mom, but then something may have happened to the mom, or the baby got sick and she abandoned it. A dominant male saw this new baby, that was not his own, as a threat and killed it.
WARNING: This video contains distressing footage and is not advisable for sensitive viewers