With the demise of the black rhino, hippo has virtually replaced it as the fifth member of 'The Big Five' - and with good reason. Weighing in at around four tonnes and measuring around 3.5m (14') nose to tail they certainly qualify as 'big'.
After elephant they tie with the white rhino in the size and weight department and, while nowhere near as belligerent as a black rhino, they are one of the most aggressive herbivores, accounting for more human deaths each year than all other members of the 'big five' combined. True, most of these attacks are on fishermen in boats, but cornered or wounded hippo on land is a formidable adversary, fully able to absorb misplaced lead along with the toughest buffalo.
Hunting hippo in water is a completely different activity to hunting one on land and for the purposes of this article only hunting them on land will be considered. This can also be broken down into three different hunts depending on where you are hunting. For a comprehensive overview of these methods Lou Hallamore does a first class job in his book 'In the Salt'.
Hippo will invariably come out of the water during the day to sunbathe. That is, until it gets too hot. Normally they will appear on a sand bank. Once you find a spot that they seem to like, build a blind and get in there early in the morning and 'sit it out'. You can possibly have a walk-in blind to save time. Wind can be especially crucial to the success of this hunt.
Hippos usually leave the water at night and go to feed. They are looking for green grass. Once they find this food supply, they use the identical path coming and going. If you locate a good bull, set up an ambush on the path. Get in very early (I mean 4 am) and wait for it to shuffle past. It's exciting!
This is specialized hunting and attention to detail is critical. There is no room for error. Make one small mistake and you will get hurt. Hippo love anything green, sugar cane as it is just sprouting, alfalfa, etc. There's a lot on their menu so you should have no trouble in finding a place to hunt if you want a crop raider.
The most important part of the equipment is the light operator. I mean the human kind. He must be a seasoned No.1 tracker (no room for wasters) who will stand his position at the moment of truth.
"Time spent on reconnaissance is never time wasted." Do not cuff this. Go to the fields and do a thorough reconnaissance. Factors to be considered:
The walk-in crop raiding hippos don't arrive at sundown and start eating. Normally they will leave the water and head up the entry/exit path about 7.30 pm. On reaching the field they stop and listen. I have personally witnessed this behavior on moonlit nights. This can take place over 20 minutes. Once they give themselves the all clear signal, they seem to drop their defenses, stroll in and start munching. I like to time my first walk in at about 9 pm. This gives the hippo herd plenty of time to settle down. On reaching the 'hot spot' stop and listen and use your night vision equipment (if you have it) making sure you are not standing in an exit path. When the moon is full, life is fairly simple using only a good pair of binoculars. Hippos that have been pressured previously will often wait for the moon to disappear.
Walk short distances and listen. You will hear them 'chomping'. Now comes the tricky part. Walk toward the hippo until you can safely assume the following:
Then switch on the light and prepare for action. Two things will happen:
Hippo are large animals with a massive skull and body surrounding relatively small vital organs and as with all animals it is important to aim to actually destroy heart, lungs or brain. On land the chest shot will be the usual option (see photo below), but with night shooting of crop raiders or an ambush of a night feeder on a path, the odds of a charge are good. Frontal chest shots with anything in the .375 class of cartridge are unlikely to stop the animal unless the spine is broken. Once the hippo has you visual it invariably opens its mouth to bite, and a shot aimed into the middle of the mouth is good for an instant stop. If the shot is fairly central it will be instantly fatal, but one off center will probably only cause concussion and a finishing shot should always be used.
On a fast departing animal, a body shot is often a poor choice since a hippo's stomach is about as large as an elephant's and if possible even more 'bullet proof'. In such circumstances a brain or neck shot is the best answer. On a fast departing hippo, a thick roll of fat is visible on the neck/body junction, and a shot directly into the middle will brain the animal or break the spine depending on the head angle and where you are positioned relative to the animal. As recovery shots go, it's a fairly easy one to pull off.
Most countries specify a .400 calibre or up, although some permit the use of a .375 or 9.3. From a blind in day light a 9.3 is perfectly adequate. At night, somebody needs to have something bigger along. For a client on a guided hunt, stay with a .375 and shoot straight. For a citizen hunter or farmer out to deal with crop raiders, a .416 is the minimum that should be considered. For night hunting a scope is essential.
Luminous front sights, blobs of toothpaste or Tip-ex on the bead, trying to position yourself on the periphery of the beam so that you can see your sights and the animal - yes, they have all been done and all proved less than satisfactory. Even in dawn light, when ambushing an animal returning to the water from a night's feed, there will often be insufficient light for proper use of metallic sights. Use a scoped rifle!
The only conceivable occasion when hippo hunting when an open sighted rifle will be satisfactory, is one of those very rare occasions when you have a wounded hippo that has retreated into thick bush rather than made for the water - which is their usual refuge. In such rare events you will have plenty of time to remove your scope before beginning the follow up.