Is the Hippopotamus a Carnivore?

Did you know that hippos kill more people every year than sharks, lions, and bears combined?

Jul 28, 2023By Abigail van der Hoeven
is the hippopotamus carnivore

Hippopotamus attacks lead to about 500 human deaths annually in Africa. But does this mean hippos are carnivorous? Do they attack people to eat them? Or just to defend their territory? Hippos are technically omnivores. They are primarily herbivores, but they have been known to occasionally kill and eat animals as well as feed on carcasses. However, humans are usually never on the menu, and most hippo attacks are always about defending territory, not because a hippo is hungry.

What Do Hippos Eat?

hippo standing grass

So if hippos don’t eat humans, what are they eating? Hippopotamuses are omnivores, yes, but most hippos primarily have herbivorous eating habits. Hippos eat grass. They come up out of the rivers and lakes that they rest in during the day at night and graze for hours on short grasses. An average hippo will eat about 80 pounds of grass in a single night, using its powerful lips to tear up grass much like horses do. Hippos may scavenge for fruits and other vegetation too during the night. Hippos spend 5 or more hours every night grazing and may travel up to five miles while they eat.

Surprisingly, hippos eat very little to no aquatic vegetation. In periods of drought, hippos may lean more heavily into that omnivorous side and may be seen attacking and eating zebras and wildebeests. They will also steal other predators kill and feed on carcasses. Hippos have also been observed engaging in cannibalistic behavior by attacking and eating other hippos.

Where do Hippos Live?

staring hippo water

There are two primary species of hippopotamus, and both are found in Africa. The common hippo lives in East Africa, in the sub-Saharan regions, living near lakes and rivers. Pygmy hippos, on the other hand, are a much smaller species of forest-dwelling hippos that live in West Africa.

Hippos are incredibly large and powerful creatures. While not the most majestic of all land creatures, hippos are fascinating and impressive semiaquatic mammals. They play an important role in the environments they live in. They are primarily grass grazers and spend hours every night wandering around, eating pounds and pounds of short grass.

Hippos Can’t Swim

hippo group water

Did you know that hippos can’t swim? These amphibious mammals spend up to 16 hours a day in the water and yet are unable to swim. Hippos are incredibly heavy. An average hippo weighs 3,000 to 4,000 pounds, and individuals have been found to weigh nearly 10,000 pounds. They are too heavy to swim, and they are too dense to float. Instead, a hippo walks or runs along the bottom of a river or lake and pushes or bounces off the bottom of a lake or riverbed to the surface.

Are Hippos Dangerous?

two hippos fighting

Hippos may appear to be mild, sluggish, and even jolly-looking mammals. But let’s not forget they kill 500 humans a year. Or those huge, 20-inch-long tusks. Hippos are the third largest living land mammal. They are incredibly heavy and strong and surprisingly fast. A hippo can run up to 20mph. Bad news for humans who can only average about 6-8mph. Hippos are incredibly territorial, and most hippos attacks are due to them feeling threatened. Most hippos attack in defense and during mating season. They have been known to kill lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and other large predators. They are not usually territorial while on land, however. Most hippo attacks happen in or near the water or in defense of a hippo calf. Hippos will capsize boats and attack local fishermen. Deaths usually occur as a result of being bitten, crushed, or drowned.

You should always avoid hippos if you ever see one in the wilds of Africa. Mating season is particularly dangerous as males are more likely to be even more territorial. You should also always stay far away from calves since mothers will attack anything threatening their babies. Yawning is a sign of aggression and is an early warning to back off.

Other Fun Facts About Hippos

two sleeping hippos

Here are some other fun facts about hippos you may not have known:

  • Hippopotamus, translated to Greek, means “large river horse”
  • Most hippos grow to be up to 10 feet long and five feet tall
  • A group of hippos is called an embarrassment
  • Male hippos never stop growing
  • Hippo tusks are made of ivory and are harder than elephant tusks
  • Hippos are one of the deadliest land animals
  • The hippopotamus cannot breathe underwater
  • Hippos secrete a red, oily substance from their skin that acts as a sun protectant


hippo yawning marsh

Hippos are very dangerous as they are incredibly territorial and unpredictable. You should never approach a hippo on land or water if you can help it. A hippo’s huge teeth and incredible weight can easily kill a human. Hippos kill an average of 500 people a year which is more than most predatory animals combined. Leave hippopotamus alone and enjoy watching them from a safe distance or the security of a zoo.

Abigail van der Hoeven
By Abigail van der Hoeven

Abigail grew up with many pets, from a sweet Golden Retriever to raising her school of tadpoles. She has three years of experience writing for the animal and pet niche. She has a lifetime of hands-on experience with all animals, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits, frogs, and more. She has three adorable guinea pigs: Guinevere, Tater Tot, and the most recent addition - baby Duncan! Abigail enjoys being outside, writing fiction, or kicking it back with a good tv comedy.