Wildlife to Watch Aboard the Ra-ikane: Hippos

A visit to the mighty Victoria Falls is not complete without a luxury cruise about the Ra-ikane down the Zambezi River. With cruises available morning, noon and evening it is an ideal activity to slow down, sip a chilled beverage and watch some incredible wildlife! Although we can’t guarantee what other types of wildlife you may see on a cruise, we are certain that everyone will see a hippo on your boat trip!

The scientific name for a hippo is Hippopotamus Amphibious. The word “hippopotamus” comes from the Greek word for “water horse” or “river horse” although they are not related at all. Hippos are more closely related surprisingly to dolphins, whales and pigs!  There are two types of hippos – the common, or large, hippo which is found in sub-Saharan Africa, and this is the type you will see on your boat cruise. The smaller, shy pygmy hippo is endangered and found in small forest ranges in West Africa only.

Hippos are massive, rotund water-dwelling mammals that are considered amphibious as they can spend up to 16 hours a day in the water. They are the third largest land mammals, after elephants and white rhinos. A female will weight up to 1,400gs and a male all the way up to 4,500kgs! A full-grown hippo will stand 1.6m at the shoulder, and up to 5 metres long.

Hippos Zambezi River Raikane

Although hippos are large, they are very quick on their feet – both on land and water. They can stay underwater for up to 5 minutes, closing their nose and ears to block out the water. Hippos also have as membranes that protect their eyes when they are underwater. In water, hippos don’t actually swim but glide by using their powerful legs to push off the riverbed floor.  Because of this, they play an important ecological role in the Zambezi River by keeping water channels open.

Hippos are brownish pink skin, with thick skin that is almost hairless. Interestingly, they do not have sweat glands, so they stay submerged their skin cool and moist. Their skin does also secrete a viscous red fluid which acts as nature’s own sunscreen.

Their flat tail is used to spread excrement – you often see them going like windmills behind their bottoms! They do this to mark their territory. However, there is an ancient Bushman story that gives another reason why hippos scatter their dung. The story goes that, “when the earth was first formed, the hippo asked the Creator to be allowed to live in the water. The Creator thought that they would eat up all the fish, and said no to them. The hippos started to make an awful noise in protest and wailed in protest. So the Creator made them promise that if they lived in the water, they couldn’t eat any fish, only grass. They promised and grunted with delighted. The story goes that is why do this day, hippos always scatter their dung on the river bank, so that the Creator can see that it contains no fish bones. And you can still hear them laughing with joy that they were allowed to live in the rivers after all!”

They have enormous powerful jaws that they can open up to 150 degrees, and you will often seem them showing off their large incisors. However, despite the size of their teeth, hippos are actually herbivores and mostly eat vast quantities of grass.

They eat in the cool of the night on land, travelling up to 10km at a time along the banks of the Zambezi River. They do sometimes eat fruit if they find it, and although it’s unusual, hippos have been seen to scavenge on carcasses too. You will notice hippo paths along the banks of the Zambezi River when you take a cruise onboard the Ra-ikane.

Hippos Zambezi River Raikane Up Close
Hippos Zambezi River Raikane Up Zimbabwe

Hippos are social animals, and live in groups called pods, bloats, sieges or schools. Both females and males live together, headed up usually by a bull hippo. If you spot hippos fighting, it is more than likely males fighting over the females and their territory. Birth takes place on land, with usually a single calf. Hippos are good mothers, taking care to chase crocodiles away from the area where they keep their young, and teaching them to swim and wallow. They carry the very young calves on their backs in the water.

Although you might think that the crocodile is the most dangerous animal in the Zambezi River, it is actually the hippo. They are aggressive, territorial and are considered very dangerous. When you are in a boat, hippos must be given enough room to move away, and on land, they must be given a very wide berth and avoided.