10th February 2023

February 15th is World Hippo Day! We don’t believe these incredible animals get the public awareness they deserve, in terms of both their successes or their struggles. So what better day to share some wonderful facts about these remarkable beings!

  • Hippos are the third largest land mammal on earth!

There are two species of hippo under the family Hippopotamidae; the pygmy hippopotamus and the common hippopotamus. After elephants and white rhinos, the common hippo is top of the scale for size, with males weighing up to 1360 kilograms (kg)! They are typically around 11 feet (ft) long and 5ft tall. Despite their incredible size, they can fully submerge and hold their breath for 5 minutes, thanks to their remarkable physiology! Their ears and nostrils actually “fold” shut to keep the water out. This allows them to sleep underwater, and “bob” up for a breath when they need to. Pygmy hippos are much smaller at 3ft tall and less than 1/5th of the weight of the common hippo!

  • Hippos are amphibious and herbivorous! 

Common hippos spend the majority of their days in water within rivers, lakes, muddy wallows and wetlands, waiting until sunset to emerge onto land and feed. Their skin needs to stay moist at all times during sunlight hours, otherwise it would crack and break. They also secrete an oily red liquid that is thought to act as a sunscreen, insect repellent and antibiotic! When eating in the evening, they munch on foliage and grass. In one evening they can eat up to 35kg! In contrast, pygmy hippos are more solitary, land-based, and mostly nocturnal individuals, who tend to reside in West African forests, and spend less time in the water as a result.

  • Hippos love to spend time with family and friends

Hippos are highly sociable animals that live in herds ranging from 10 to 100 individuals! Females - called cows - typically give birth to young once a year, or every two years, and the lactation period can even extend over 18 months. The herd protects the young from predators such as crocodiles, hyenas and lions. Females do not reach sexual maturity until nine or ten years old, and their long gestation period of eight months makes the species especially vulnerable to exploitation and the threat of extinction.

  • Fights for territory are very dangerous!

Males can cause serious injury to other individuals when fighting over possession of territory, due to their large canine teeth! Minor spats can happen more regularly in the herd, but these complaints are usually settled with a large yawn to ward off anyone looking for trouble! One large, dominant male will typically rule a herd; which will be made up of females, their young, and a few young, non-breeding males.

  • Hippos are facing terrible pressures on their survival in the wild

The pygmy hippo is now classed as endangered by the IUCN (with the global population feared to be as little as 2,000-3,000 wild individuals), and the common hippo is classed as vulnerable (however many animal protection and conservation organisations believe numbers are now far worse than the 2016 figures). 

The incredible hippo has been part of the African ecosystem for millions of years, and once wondrously ranged from the Nile river valley to the Cape. However, due to illegal hunting, climate change, widespread habitat loss, and even human retaliatory killings as a result of this loss and the associated human-wildlife conflict, the species has since become regionally extinct in three African countries. Devastatingly, there has been a 530% increase in hippo teeth export annually. Many hippos are shot under the guise of “protection” and to keep them away from crops and human housing, when in reality the profit generated from their bodies and bodyparts being sold through the meat and ivory trade is the leading factor. 

Wild populations have dropped 7-20% in the past decade, and there are now approximately only 115,000-130,000 common hippos left in the wild. These individuals are mostly confined to protected areas in East African countries. This ancient species is lacking adequate protection, and largely overlooked in terms of government protection. Shockingly, the species are still legally traded for commercial purposes and hunting trophies under Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and this is unacceptable. There must be a total international ban on the trade in hippo body parts and teeth which are often used as an ivory substitute to help avert the decline of the species. It is estimated that at least 77,579 hippo parts and products were legally traded from 2009 to 2018. The number of hippo parts traded illegally is unknown. 

Zoos are not the answer!

In UK zoos there are approximately 11 pygmy hippos and 13 common hippos currently being held captive in unnatural environments that could never replicate their wild habitats.

As we’ve learnt above, common hippos especially can live in herds of up to 100 individuals, whereas in zoos the majority are forced to live in smaller groups of two, and in some cases even alone (Dublin Zoo devastatingly holds a solitary female called Heidi).

The European breeding programme affects hippos dramatically, with many individuals cruelly being shipped away from their families and forced to breed with strangers in different zoos for profit.

Whipsnade Zoo recently sent their resident male, Hoover, to Flamingo Land, presumably for breeding purposes (although the move  has been all together rather secretive), and in turn it appears that Flamingo Land have sent their male, Ernie, who was bonded to female, Godzilla, to an undisclosed location as a result. And recently in Marwell Zoo, a one-year old pygmy hippo called Norbert was taken from his mother’s side and sent to Belgium.

Separating bonded families is completely unacceptable, and causes a great deal of stress and sadness to animals incarcerated within the zoo system. Efforts must be focussed on species protection in the wild, the answer to their survival is not to hold these remarkable, complex animals in captivity.

Freedom for Animals is fighting for animal freedom, and an end to all zoos. 

We carry out undercover investigations exposing animal cruelty and exploitation.

We support protests at zoos raising awareness with the public.

We educate the public about zoos by speaking up for animals in the media, online and in person.

Find out more about how you can support this vital work HERE

- 10th February 2023