By Donald J Stoner


It is said that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal (if you exclude mosquitos).  But does that qualify them to be classified as dangerous game.  I have certainly had my doubts until, that is, an experience I had one night in a farmer’s field.  There is no question that an animal that weighs two tons, can run up to 20 mph and has huge teeth, has the potential of being dangerous.  The danger is highest if you happen to catch a hippo on the land.  Water is their preferred environment and they seem less threatened there.  I don’t think any predator will attack a full-grown hippo in the water, although a big croc will certainly snatch a small hippo given half a chance.  On the other hand, lion, especially a large pride, will attack a hippo if they catch it on land.  This may have something to do with hippo temperament when they are away from water.  Threaten a hippo on land, and it will head straight for the nearest water and run over or through anything foolish enough to get in the way.  This is usually not “charging”; it is simply escaping.  Of course, if you happen to be between the hippo and the water, the effect for you is not much different.  He will not hesitate to kill you as he goes by.


Since I have never really considered hippo “dangerous” game, I have never had a great desire to hunt one.  Shooting a hippo in the water, while it can be challenging, is hardly dangerous.  Thus, hippo was never on my “wish list”.  However, in 1996 when on safari with my wife, an unusual opportunity arose that changed my opinion of hippo.


I had a wonderful safari in a game-rich area bordering the Kruger Park. During that safari I had taken both lion and leopard.  The leopard had not been planned but the opportunity came due to heavy predation on a nearby farm.  The hunt for lion and leopard consumed almost all of our three weeks scheduled safari time, but in addition to taking a lot of bait, I had also taken several quality trophies.  I was well past satisfied with the success of the hunt, so I had packed up my rifles and gear and planned to enjoy another couple of days in camp before catching the plane home.


On the morning of our next to last day in camp, my PH excitedly came to our room and asked if I would like to take a hippo.  “Well, not exactly!  But I will listen to your proposition.”  He then explained that a sweet potato farm in an area about an hour from our camp had just called him because they had been given a problem permit to kill a hippo that had been raiding their farm every night for two weeks. 

This was a real problem because the hippo was consuming an estimated 450 pounds of potatoes a night and doing great damage to the remaining plants.  He then explained that the farm was near a reserve that was fenced off from private farm land to protect the crops.  The fact that the hippo was leaving the reserve indicated it was probably a young male that had been driven out of the pod by the dominant bull.  When displaced, they can become quite a problem as they search for new territory.  Because of this behavior, my PH thought the offender would not be a trophy bull, but since the price was right, he suggested we take the job.  He explained that we would have to be certain we killed the culprit and to do that we would have to catch him 

feeding on the field at night.  He explained that we would have to wait till late evening and then, every hour or two, we would start near the river and walk the fields, working our way toward the back of the farm moving in absolute silence and darkness.  We would find the hippo by sound since they make a lot of noise chewing up potatoes.  Once located, we would get as close as we could and then turn the lights on him.  That would trap the hippo.  He would have to come by us to get back to safety and would probably try to kill us as he went by.  His selling point was not the trophy, but rather that it was indeed a dangerous hunt.  OK!  Now you have my attention.


I unpacked my .375 and solid ammo and my PH began making the arrangements with both the farmer and the game management department.  Late in the afternoon we drove the hour or so to the farm where we met the farmer and his farm manager.  They showed us around the farm just as it was getting dark.  In doing so, we surprised a sounder of bush pigs which they also needed to remove, and I made a lucky shot from a moving vehicle at a running pig and put him down.  It was a good start to the evening.


After we surveyed the farm and developed our strategy, we parked under an old tree near the riverside of the farm and had some coffee and a light snack. It was a clear, cold night and the miles of plowed fields soon were shrouded in darkness.  I was then given strict instructions that I will never forget. 


“You must remain absolutely silent until we locate him and get the light on him.  As soon as the light hits him, you start shooting.  Shoot for the head or neck, but get as many shots into him as you can.  I will be standing next to you and the second I don’t see empty cases flying from your rifle, I will start shooting.  This is serious and you must put him down quickly or someone will get hurt.  Do you understand?”  OK, I think I had the picture!  I better shoot fast and well or you are going to do it for me and if I mess up, we will all be in a lot of trouble.  I got it.  Yea, right!  Can I go home now?  This was not exactly what I expected.  Stumbling around in the dark with a hippo, not to mention all the other interesting things you might stumble into like mambas, cobras, adders and who knows what else, scarcely seems like fun.

We waited until it was black dark.  About nine pm we made the first round of plowed fields with uneven footing, varied smells, feet sinking into soft soil in places, and stumbling on lumps of solid clods at others.  It took forty-five minutes to walk the rows of crop, probably about half a mile, and then we returned to the truck where we sat, talked, and shared coffee.  By now it was getting quite chilly, so the hot coffee was very welcome.  We repeated the same drill at ten and eleven and then returned to find an invitation to join the farmer at his house for a cup of hot chocolate and some snacks, a welcome invitation.  Upon arrival, everyone went in ahead of me and closed the door almost in my face, which seemed a bit unusual.  As I opened the door, I was confronted by a huge leopard, claws out, jaws open in mid-spring right in front of the door.  Needless to say, it gave me quite a start until I realized it was a beautiful mount of a big leopard arranged to give any unexpected guest just the scare it gave me.  Of course, everyone got a laugh out of my sudden frozen step and surprised look. 


Shortly after midnight we were back walking the rows and rows of planted sweet potatoes.  Several times we heard movement and maneuvered to be ready but each time it was some unknown animal that heard, or smelled, us and simply vanished.  Still, every noise caused a heightened awareness and adrenalin surge. 

On this round of the farm, about half way across an immense field, we heard noise and there was no mistaking the source.  Whatever was making the noise had to be huge, so obviously it was hippo, elephant, or rhino.  Since there had been no problem with either of the latter, we assumed it was the hippo.  My PH moved to my right, almost touching my shoulder, and then whispered, “ready”.  At that the light came on and illuminated an immense form about thirty yards away.  With a speed that was little short of unbelievable, the hippo swiveled to directly face us.  I could see his head lower and bulk start to move toward us.  Almost as quickly I fired, squeezing the trigger at the same instant the crosshairs crossed his eyes.  There was no conscious aiming, just a snap shot.  Thankfully, I had been doing a lot of practice with moving targets.  As I fired, the huge mass slammed down into the ground chin first as his forward foot failed to move as he rushed forward. 

The impact was so hard that I could not only hear it but I felt it in my feet.  My shot had severed his spine just at the back of the head.  He was already moving so fast that my bullet, intended for between the eyes, hit about four inches further back severing the spine at the base of the skull.  A spine shot explained his sudden and complete collapse.  As I stood trying to determine if I needed to shoot again my PH slapped my back so hard I almost had an accidental discharge.  He was absolutely thrilled.  So were the trackers.  The relief was palpable and the enthusiasm at the size of the brute was off the scale.  I had been warned not to expect a trophy-sized hippo, but he was certainly a trophy bull and proved to be the largest hippo killed in that province over the last five years.  He was indeed battle scarred and it appeared he had lost his fight to maintain supremacy which probably accounted for his behavior. 


I was simply astounded at his size.  I had been assured that we would recover the animal in the truck we took, but this bull was so huge, we barely managed to get the severed head into the bed of the truck.  We had to leave the body in the field to be recovered the following day.  No wonder they were losing four hundred plus pounds of potatoes each night.  The area where he had been feeding looked like a bulldozer had been at work.  The farmer was jubilant, my PH was thrilled, and I was simply ecstatic.  It was a remarkable trophy, taken on land at night, and done with one fast shot.  What a night to remember.


As we returned to the camp, I was in hippo heaven.  That night remains a wonderful memory and one I certainly will never have the opportunity to repeat.  I just thank God it ended safely and that I had the experience of such a hunt.  And, “yes”, I now consider hippo dangerous game.