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 and a cornered or wounded hippo 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 which was considered in Part One of this series and in the following pages will deal with hunting them in water and other aspects of the hunt. Since hippo spend approximately twelve hours a day relaxing in the water - and almost all of this during daylight hours - it is reasonable to expect to shoot your hippo in the water! Locating hippo is relatively easy. They are found in all the major river systems in Africa and most large permanent water bodies such as pans or dams where they are not overly persecuted. Just wander over and watch. The centre of a hippo's life in the water is the 'pod' - the family group of cows, calves and one dominant bull. Hanging around the edges of the pod - at a respectful distance of a hundred meters or so - are usually a few spare males. These 'outliers' are usually young bulls who are not strong enough to challenge the herd bull, but occasionally are real big trophy bulls who are just too old to fight hard enough for control of the harem.
Two things will become immediately obvious when sitting on the bank watching a pod of hippo. Firstly that very few of the total number present are actually visible at any one time - many are under the water sitting on the bottom and they can hold their breath for an extraordinarily long time! Secondly picking out the bull isn't the easiest activity and choosing a good trophy is going to mean a lot of waiting and watching different pods through your binos because it is only when the bull 'yawns' that you can actually see his tusks and judge their size.
First question, I suppose, is what constitutes a trophy hippo? Traditionally the tusks are measured. These are actually the lower canine teeth which play no part in feeding (hippo 'mow' grass using their lips). They are purely the defensive weapons in a cow and the main offensive weapon in a bull. The life of a female hippo is pretty relaxed although she may occasionally need to shred a croc or lion that takes too close an interest in her calf. Bulls, on the other hand fight fiercely, often to the death, for control of a harem. The SCI minimum entry score is 50 and method of measurement 12. A few outlandish tusks measuring over 60" in total length were collected in the Congo in the 1930s but today anything over 30" is very exceptional. Most of this length though is hidden inside the lips and there is seldom more than 8" or so of tooth actually protruding that can be seen.
In many instances, a trophy hippo is in the eye of the beholder. Like buffalo, a battered scared old bull will be more appealing to many than a large pair of tusks. That said however, the main difficulty lies in actually determining which is the bull in the pod, or in making sure that one of the outliers is actually a male and not a big cow who has wandered away from the pod for a bit of peace and quiet.
A big, mature bull, is relatively easy to determine in a pod. His skin colour is generally darker (less pink skin around the eyes) and his head is noticeably bigger than the surrounding females. That's all very well, but the real 'jaws' bull may not end up controlling a pod. A younger or smaller bull who just happens to fight more savagely may well be 'top pig' in that stretch of water and the biggest head in the pod belongs to an old cow, and the trophy bull the hunter is after, is sitting a short distance away upstream wondering how he can sneak back.
The only sure distinguishing feature of a reasonably big bull are the tusk bulges on the top of the mouth. Those tusks have got to stick up into some space, and on a good bull there are usually significant bulges just behind the lips.
Having positively identified your bull colour, size, tusk bulges - you still have to wait for the yawn if you are picky about your trophy. That yawn is actually a sign of aggression and acts as a warning to keep the outlying bulls at a respectful distance and will occur at least a couple of times a day. If you can see more than 8" of tusk sticking out from the lips when it yawns you have a very respectable trophy. In areas where the hippo are regularly hunted you cannot get too close and expect to be able to watch the pod. The moment you are detected, the only thing you have to look at are the occasional set of nostrils sticking up just high enough out of the water so that you know that there is a hippo there, it can breath happily, and you can do nothing about it. Since the average day in a hippo's life is spent being as lazy as possible, you can rest assured that the hippos' patience will outlast yours. All this means of course is that when glassing a pod looking for a suitable animal, you have to stay well back out of even a paranoid hippo's idea of maximum rifle range. It is one of the few situations in the African bush where a good pair of 10x binos or even a spotting scope is very useful - along with a comfy chair and plenty of coffee or coke.
The secret to successful hunting of hippos in the water is shot placement. You have only the brain as a target and this is about the size of a large orange. PH opinion is pretty evenly divided between those that favour the frontal brain shot and those that prefer the side brain shot. For the frontal shot, mentally draw two lines on the animal's head. One from the left ear to the right eye and the other from the right ear to the left eye. Where they cross (center of the X) is where you put your bullet. From the side, put your bullet straight into the ear hole - a couple of inches in front will still be OK but more than two inches back is likely to be a miss.
Calibre choice and ammunition used is also a crucial factor in successfully hunting hippo in the water. Yes, an expert shot who has done a lot of hippo culling (and probably made a few mistakes which are never ever mentioned) can get away with using a small bore rifle. Do not be tempted. A good 'scope sighted .375 H&H with solids is probably the best bet, unless you are a good shot with your .416. Regular soft point bullets don't work as a rule. Specialized super softs like the Barnes X or Winchester Fail Safe would seem to be a good compromise or a flat nosed solid. What you are looking for is deep penetration in pretty hefty bone and a considerable degree of shock. A round nosed solid in a .375 leaves nearly as little room for error as a round nosed solid in a 7x57. A premium bullet that will impart real concussion when it hits provides enough of a margin of error to make them very worth while. A nick on the edge of the brain, even possibly a miss by a couple of milimetres can be compensated for by bullet impact power. If the bullet isn't an instant kill or equally instant knock out you are in trouble.
In most countries a shot fired at a hippo in the water counts against the licence whether a hit or a miss. There will be no blood spoor to confirm the strike and so, you pull the trigger, it's yours to pay for. Miss that brain by an inch or so, even with a .500 and you are unlikely to see that hippo again that day and by tomorrow he counts as a fresh animal! Use enough gun, the right ammo and put it in the right place - easy!
The real art is getting into position so that you can actually take the shot at what is really a very small target. The vital area on an impala is twice the size and you don't have to use a heavy recoiling rifle either! Once you have selected your animal you have two choices. Try and sneak up on the pod, undetected, get into a steady position and take the shot or walk up brazenly, build a blind with a covered approach and then back off until the animals settle down again. You cannot build a blind and then sit in it, hoping the hippo will forget you are there. Large brains they may not have but they are not that stupid!
In either case, the main thing is a good shooting rest. If you are trying a 'sneak up' approach, take a small rucksack with a few jackets etc in, or a full CamelBak to act as a rest. Unless you are making the approach through a reed bed the shot will probably be taken from prone. If you have snuck up through a reed bed you are going to be up to your ankles in mud and no aid or rest is going to work so just make sure you are close enough and shoot straight! If you build a blind, pay attention to the rifle rest, and then go away and check the zero of your rifle at the exact distance you are going to have to shoot at!
The time of day when you shoot will have a great bearing on the speed of recovery if you shoot a hippo in even moderately deep water. On being fatally shot, the hippo will instantly sink. How long it stays down depends on the fermentation of the gasses in the gut. Hippo leave their water sanctuary to feed at night, and the fuller the three chambered stomach is when you shoot him, the quicker he will float. They also have a very efficient digestive system and the 40kg or so of grass ingested by a bull during a night's feed will be largely eliminated by mid afternoon. Brain a hippo first thing in the morning and it will usually float within the hour. Shoot one in the late afternoon in winter and it could be four to six hours before it floats. In a dam, this may not be such a problem, but in a swift flowing river like the Zambezi, your hippo could easily be 20 miles down stream before it comes up. Under such circumstances it is well worth identifying your trophy in the afternoon, sorting out the blind or approach and then coming back first thing in the morning to shoot it. The pods stay within a well defined position in a river and will not move more than a few hundred meters maximum up or down, and will usually leave and return to the river or lake by the same path every day.
Recovery of a hippo is a mission, even if you have a good winch on your vehicle and a fair sized staff to help. It doesn't seem to get any easier with practice either! If you have shot your hippo in the water, or shot it on land and it has reached the water before expiring, you are going to need a boat for the recovery. You are also going to get muddy and wet, and end up splashing around on the bank hoping the crocs are kept away by the noise! Never attempt to drag a hippo head first on to the land - it will dig in and you simply end up doing a lot more pushing and shoving waist deep in croc infested water. I have found the novelty of these situations wears off very quickly.
Once ashore the hippo is usually skinned as four panels, plus the feet if so desired for ice buckets or other 'novelty' trophy use. The tail should always be thrown back into the river or lake, to appease the river gods. The custom varies from area to area as to whether it should be the hunter or the most senior local tribesman but it keeps the peace and I cannot think of any other use for it!
As with all skulls, do not over boil, or they will crack. The tusks are particularly susceptible to this. If you do not need the skull it may be better to leave ants and nature to do the work until they can be pulled without boiling.
Special care must be taken with the skin. It must be removed quite quickly or the underlying fat will begin to go rancid and ruin the leather. Even once you have the skin off, it is necessary to try and get enough salt into that very thick hide - it averages around 2" (5cm) - to preserve it. Covering the hide in coarse salt as with most other game can be got away with in mid winter, but otherwise you have to assist. Plenty of cross cuts into the inside layer of hide and then cover it with a salt slurry is probably the best option. As the slurry dries out you can add more salt if needed or treat as a normal drying hide.
Page Updated: Jan 2020