Swallowed, Chewed and Drowned By Hippos – Strange Deaths by Africa’s Most Dangerous Animal

Marius Els, a South African farmer adored his pet hippo Humphrey. Then one day it killed him.

The web is burning this week with the story of the man who survived being swallowed by a hippo, but what about the people who don’t survive..

Hippos are actually responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than lions or tigers or cheetahs or ostriches or anything else. Apparently, they kill hundreds of people each year.

First, a bit on the hippo. They are the third largest land mammal on earth, after the elephant and the rhinoceros. Their closest relatives are whales, from which they diverged about 55 million years ago. They are semi-aquatic, inhabiting rivers, lakes and mangrove swamps. They spend the day submerged in river mud and come out at dusk to graze on grass. They eat over 100 pounds of vegetation a day. They can kill a crocodile.

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Trouble arises because male hippos actively defend their territories, which run along the banks of rivers such as the Zambezi, where Paul Templer, the man swallowed by the hippo was leading a group of tourists in kayaks.

“I’d been working this stretch of river for years, and the grouchy old two-ton bull had carried out the occasional half-hearted attack,” Templer told the Guardian.

Hippos can run at speeds of over 20 miles an hour and have enormous jaws, with 20 inch canines. Says Templer: “It felt as if the bull was making full use of the whole lot as he mauled me—a doctor later counted almost 40 puncture wounds and bite marks on my body. The bull simply went berserk, throwing me into the air and catching me again, shaking me like a dog with a doll.”

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Despite the fact that hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa, hippo death stories aren’t exactly floating thickly across the surface of the web.

But I did find this, the curious case of Marius Els, a South African farmer who was savagely killed by his pet hippo in 2011.

Els had raised the hippo himself, since the time it was five months old. He called it Humphrey. Photos taken not long before he was killed show Els riding the hippo through the river, as if he is on a mechanical bull.

People “think you can only have a relationship with dogs, cats and domestic animals,” he told an interviewer. “But I have a relationship with the most dangerous animal in Africa.”

A YouTube video shows Els in a safari hat, feeding Humphrey apples. “It’s a little bit dangerous but I can swim with him,” says Els. “We go in the water and he allows me to get on his back and I ride him like a horse.”

“I trust him with my heart that he will not harm anybody,” Els says at one point.

But late one Saturday evening an ambulance was dispatched to his farm. Els had been bitten several times by Humphrey and held underwater for an unknown period of time. He was declared dead at the scene.

As wild as this story is, I am still left wondering, where are all the other hippo death stories? If you have one please drop us a comment!

13 Responses to “Swallowed, Chewed and Drowned By Hippos – Strange Deaths by Africa’s Most Dangerous Animal”
  1. Penni Blow says:

    i am enjoying all the comments. you guys are some very cool and intelligent people. i love hippos. yet i hve never actually talked to one. and i had no idea i could be eaten if the conversation went wrong. yikes.

  2. ellaweese says:

    more like when pigs fall!!

  3. Paul Oberlin says:

    Pigs do eat humans once it gets taste of human flesh it will keep attacking

  4. Edward Chapman says:

    Do hippos ever eat people they’ve killed?

  5. Jeff Williams says:

    I work in South Africa teaching young safari guides and this story, that hippos kill more humans each year in Africa than any other animal, is oft repeated. But there are no statistics to confirm it. It is simply an anecdote. So it may be true but isn’t a reliable tale. Also, it depends on whether one examines deaths to tourists, hunters or ordinary folk, particularly those who live in the bush. If you need the local river for water, washing etc then it’s more likely that there will be human-animal conflict. For tourists, trawling the internet and the subject of one research article from South Africa, it is clear that by a huge margin it is elephants who are responsible for most injury and death to those on foot. Hippo comes third below lions. And all the fatalities I can uncover for hippos over the last 20 years are related to canoeing trips. However, I’d be very interested to correspond with anyone who has more reliable information or a good tale to tell. Finally, if you want to ‘walk’ dangerous game in Africa go with a guide. Mostly it’s exceedingly safe. But there are incidents, some fatal, even then though they are mercifully rare given the number of tourists walking in the bush, so never get over-confident. On foot is certainly the best way of feeling nature at its best.

    • Ken Waterhouse says:

      I couldn’t agree more! I am of the opinion that the myth is only so popular because it sounds so outrageous, and has perhaps been propagated by guides seeking more interesting stories to tell guests in order to get higher tips.
      Where we live in Zambia is one of the most densely populated hippo areas in the world. As well as crocodiles, elephants, lions, leopards and buffalo etc. But in 7 years living here, there have been no deaths recorded by hippos , but there have been 31 cases of elephants killing people and 15 cases of crocodiles and 2 cases of buffalo. No I know that this does not constitute a scientific research paper or anything, but you would expect the area in the world with one of the highest hippo populations to be a cesspool of hippo carnage. The fact is, it just isn’t. Almost every hippo I have come across, or stumbled across in the dark has run away from me very quickly. I’ve never seen or encountered an angry one, and I’ve never been so much as mock charged.
      Thats my two cents…

  6. C.M. Mayo says:

    Where are all the other hippo death stories? I have no idea but if I come any I’ll let you know. (It really does make me think… all the things we could worry about… what are the “hippos” in one’s life?… )

    • Justin Nobel says:

      Ah, I love that line of thought! Yes, the statistic on hippo deaths is meant to be shocking, because no one assumes hippos can kill. But isn’t it always like that, the dormant volcano, the placid calm sea (before the tsunami), the falling piano..

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