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

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, May 10th, 2013

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!

33 thoughts on “Swallowed, Chewed and Drowned By Hippos – Strange Deaths by Africa’s Most Dangerous Animal”

  1. Jason Mandler

    A lot of deaths attributed to Hippos (and coincidently Bees) are actual by sharks who have staged the murder scene to implicate other species.

  2. Robert Reed

    The average human death toll by hippos in Africa is 500 per year. It is officially the deadliest animal in Africa towards humans. Google sources.

  3. C S MD

    Hi–Liliane Pierre-Paul (Haitian-American) was killed in I believe 1987 in her graduation year at Wright State University School of Medicine, while tubing in a river near Nairobi, if I recall correctly: the group came upon a group with a “baby,” and the group was attacked by one of the adults. Liliane (not the celebrity of same name) was liked by everyone who knew her, was a good friend of mine who always asked after my 8 year old son; and she was a gift to our world.

  4. Daniel Pi

    My brother was a rice farmer, and he was killed by a hippo. He had purchased a parcel of land abutting the river, which he flooded to create rice paddies. The water diverted from the river apparently disturbed the local hippo population, which would wander into the paddies. To deter the hippos, my brother shot a large bull, and displayed the remains at the point where the river met the irrigation canals. The hippos thereafter avoided the rice paddies. Six months later, my brother collapsed while working in the paddies. The autopsy showed he died of cyanide poisoning. There was no natural source of cyanide, to which he could have been exposed. A police investigation revealed that there were fatal levels of cyanide in the corn meal in my brother’s pantry, which he must have consumed. We discovered hippo tracks leading from the river to the pantry.

  5. Clark Nance

    You are completely wrong in saying that hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other critter. The Nile crocodile gets that prize. I think you pulled your data out of the air.

    • Kamden Nestor

      “Firm numbers are sketchy, but estimates are that up to 200 people may die each year in the jaws of a Nile croc.”
      “Despite being vegetarian, hippos are considered the most dangerous terrestrial animal on the African continent. On average, they are responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 humans every year.”

    • Tom T.

      Both of you need to document your source. Who is “clark nance” that I should believe him as the final authority on this?


    I had a roommate in the 1980s who grew up in Ivory Coast and was training to go back as a bush pilot. Some time after he returned to Africa, not Ivory Coast but I don’t remember which country he was in, he sent me a letter. He had been on a raft trip that imcluded another male pilot and a female doctor. A hippo attacked their raft and the 3 of them. He was dragged down under the water, played dead, and after awhile the hippo released him. He was injured but able to reach the shore where he passed out. Meanwhile the hippo attacked the other 2. The other pilot had major injuries to his legs and was never able to fly again. The doctor was killed.
    Yesterday I was talking to a woman who grew up in Africa as a missionary kid, and she remembers hearing about a doctor who was killed by a hippo, and thinks it may have been the same doctor. But we don’t know.

  7. Jennifer Barrows

    “Lions, tigers and cheetahs…” ??? The only tiger you are going to find in Africa is possibly at a zoo. They are in Asia, not Africa. Might want to amend this story.

  8. Parlanee Reid

    At least one can speculate that the falling piano deaths last noise might be artfully like that ending of that good old reliable by the Beatles….A day in the life! ” i heard the news today Oh boy…”

  9. Penni Blow

    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.

    • Anna

      No they are herbivores. They are just not very good at assessing situations so they attack when feel threatened.

      • Me

        Wrong. New observations have shown that hippos do eat meat, just not as much as veggies. They are omnivores, though. They can assess a situation just fine: if you’re in its territory, it will remove you. Period.

        • GuM

          While Hippos are primarily herbivores, there has been sightings of them eating meat rarely. This usually happens if there is a nutrition problem. A Hippo’s digestive system is not built for eating meat though.

          • Eric

            They are also known to eat meat on special occasions, such as Memorial Day, and family reunions.

  10. Jeff Williams

    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

      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…

      • Mark

        I’m a defender of hippos and although they can be dangerous I think they are getting a bad rap. You’ve probably heard of Pablo Escobar’s hippos in Colombia haven’t you? They now number about 80 and since they were let loose in Dec, 1993 after Escobar was killed there’s been just ONE reported attack on a human. A number of them have even wandered into town but never attacked anyone. The likely worst encounter there would be to hit one with a car which would be like hitting a locomotive. I’ve interacted with hippos in zoos and they were gentle giants. I don’t believe it’s their nature to kill people and other animals. Rather they are just trying to defend what’s theirs.

  11. C.M. Mayo

    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

      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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