Lion vs. Hippo

Oliver Greenfield

15 Nov 2017

nws olly recounts a thrilling life-and-death encounter in zambia

My recent trip to the wonderful wildernesses of Zambia provided one of the most intense wildlife sightings I have ever witnessed, and it all happened so quickly it was almost as though it had never happened.

The afternoon drive started like any other - with a good afternoon tea - but in this case it was from a beautiful vantage point over the Luangwa River at Kaingo Camp. We started the drive with the aim of catching up with a pack of wild dogs that were seen by some guests on their morning drive. It was a very hot day so we were hopeful of finding a location close to where they were last seen relaxing in the shade, but unfortunately this was not the case. After a good while searching around the area and a lack of tracks indicating where they had gone, we admitted defeat, moving off to see what else may have been happening.

Most of the wildlife flocks to the river during the dry season in South Luangwa, as this is the largest remaining source of water in the park. This is where we headed too. Driving along the top of the riverbank we spotted a pride of nine lions sleeping flat out on the cool sand by the river.

With barely a lift of a head from the lions to acknowledge our presence we decided to move on and come back to them a bit later when it would be closer to sunset, as watching sleeping lions can in all honesty be rather dull.

After a while and a lovely sighting of a breeding herd of elephants we headed back to the riverbank, enjoying our gin and tonics as we observed the lions from a safe distance. This time they did show a little more acknowledgement of our presence. As we finished our drinks the lions started to show signs that they were waking up, with lots of stretching and yawning and one of the females greeting each of the other pride members. This particular female seemed to then get rather impatient with the remaining pride as some of them were still flat out, and so she started to make her way directly towards us away from the others.

As she came towards us a young hippo came into view from the riverbank with the intention of heading into the water, despite the lion obstacles lying in its way. The lioness immediately showed interest in this hippo and the hippo decided the best course of action was to try to charge towards this lioness and into the river. 

The hippo and lion were soon on a collision course and in my mind I thought the hippo would have the upper hand, being the larger animal up against a single lion. 

However, the lioness dodged the hippo’s charge and managed in one swift movement to swing up onto the hippo’s back and through the momentum flip the hippo onto its back. Within seconds the rest of the pride were on top of the hippo, attempting to make a killing blow.

After a lot of bellowing from the hippo and snarling from the lions, all went quiet from the hippo as its body went limp. It appeared that all was over.

The big male lion then chased off some of the lionesses, as he was due to take his share of the feast first. But within a few moments, two more hippos emerged from the river, both much larger than their fallen comrade, and the pair charged into the pride of lions with their mouths wide open and their teeth bared, immediately scattering the predators. The young hippo then sprang up and gave the lions a little charge before making a dash for the river with its saviours at its side. The lions all then looked rather perplexed as to what had just happened to their dinner, and lined up along the side of the river to watch the hippos as they recovered.

As I mentioned before, this was one of the most intense wildlife sightings I had ever witnessed, even from all my time guiding in South Africa and the many other safaris I have been on across Africa. I was surprised with the ease at which the initial lioness managed to flip the hippo, as I thought the hippo, although not fully grown but still at least twice the size of the lion, would make it to the river unscathed. The greed and impatience of the male lion then got the better of the pride, and instead of waiting for the females to finish their job and make the kill, he gave the hippo the opportunity to play dead and wait for its backup to arrive.

That the hippos were so fiercely protective of their own was another surprise to me, as even when it looked like the young hippo was a lost cause they still went in for the rescue.

  This was a fascinating sighting in terms of animal behaviour and shows just how opportunistic lions really are.

Hippo would not normally be on the menu for lions as they are so big and surprisingly dangerous, what with their huge teeth and massive weight.

Somehow during the sighting I did manage to take a video of some of it and although it is quite a hard watch it is well worth watching to the end, as it was a happy ending for the hippo!


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