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The hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius, Kiboko, Mvuu), whose name means "river horse" (from the Greek: horse = hippo + potamos = river) may be Africa's least accurately named animal. Hippo do inhabit rivers, but it is difficult to imagine a four-legged beast less like a horse—the vast, rotund hippopotamus is one of Africa's biggest animals with a thick, hairless body, short legs and a large head and muzzle.

It is the third biggest mammal in Africa and can weigh upwards of two tons (2 tonnes) and measure fifteen feet (4.6 m) long by five feet (1.5 m) high—Africa's third biggest mammal. Like many large animals, they live a long time, about forty years.

Hippos rarely emerge from water during the day so they do not need camouflage and skin is colored for protection against the sun: blackish-brown upper parts and flanks but pink underparts. The hippo's hide seems tough but is quite delicate and easily damaged. When on land special skin glands secrete an oily fluid which contains red pigment which offers protection against drying of the skin and burning by strong sun.

The animal spends most of the day time wallowing in rivers and lakes and swamps. The water helps support its bulk, protect it from the sun and predators, and aquatic plants provide the hippo with some food. The hippo's ears, eyes and nostrils and located at the top of the head so it can see and breathe while most of its body is under water. It can also remain under water for considerable lengths of time. Recent studies suggest that hippo communicate underwater as well as above.

Hippos are much better adapted to life in water than land. Even so, except when predators are in the neighborhood, hippos are not shy of land at all. Although they eat aquatic plants, they feed mainly on shore at night to look for grass and herbaceous plants to graze upon. They often travel many miles during the night. During nocturnal forays, they tend to be solitary, while in the daytime they are highly social, spending most time in large herds.

The huge mouth of the hippo makes its tusks of hippos seem small. In fact they are formidable shearing devices, with razor sharp cutting edges. A hippo's jaws can easily crush a man. Hippos seem rather docile and lethargic but one should not be fooled as they are dangerous animals. They are aggressive and quick to anger. A person that stands between a hippo and water is likely to be charged. When present in large numbers, they fight among themselves and you will often see animals with large scars and gashes inflicted by other hippos.

These occur most often among fighting bulls who are especially combative during breeding. A dominant male will protect select territory along a river bank and chase off any contenders. They display by gaping wide and showing their long tusks. An inferior male appeases the dominant bull by defecating copiously. If this doesn't happen then battle is met. The males charge toward each other grapple with their jaws.

Mating occurs in the water, and gestation takes about eight months; relatively short for a mammal of this size. The young can suckle underwater by a special adaptation of the tongue which extrudes to engage the mother's teat. They take at least seven years to reach adulthood.

Hippos are abundant over much of eastern and central Africa, although in recent years they have declined with combined effects of population pressure, drought and drainage or pollution of wetlands and rivers. Although their tusks make a good ivory and their meat is excellent, poaching does not seem to have seriously affected hippo populations within protected conservation areas. They are widely distributed and occur almost anywhere there is permanent water surrounded with grasslands. Often they are found in small bodies of water far from any major river or lake.

The decline in hippo numbers has highlighted the potential for these animals to be domesticated. Due to their slow metabolism and efficiency converting plant to biomass, they offer a potential for farming, much more productively than cattle or other wild game.

How they reach these remote spots, such as the bottom of Ngorongoro crater, is unclear. In some cases they may have migrated. In others, they may be remnants of larger continuous populations stranded when connecting lakes or rivers dried up. During the dry season, they will migrate considerable distances in search of suitable water. In Kenya, hippo are best seen in Tsavo Park, where a herd inhabit the beautifully clear water of Mzima springs. In Malawi, a dense population lives along the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. The biggest population in Zambia is along the Zambesi River, with large numbers in most of that country's national parks.


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