By Cleve Cheney
The amphibious river horse Hippopotamus amphibious is a worthwhile adversary and potentially highly dangerous. The size of this animal, combined with its robust skeleton, thick skin and heavy muscle, necessitates the use of a suitable calibre and well-constructed bullets when attempting heart / lung shots on land, especially when following up wounded hippo. They can be relatively easy to kill when using the right calibre, bullet and shot placement. However, they can be difficult to kill if you have ‘blown the first’ shot with an ill-placed bullet or arrow.
Figure 1: A hippo bull – a heavyweight and a formidable adversary
Recommended rifle calibres
Scoped, smaller calibres have been used for frontal brain shots on hippo because the target is small and when shots have to be taken from ranges of 50 – 100 m or more, it is difficult to place shots accurately with an open-sighted big-bore rifle. However, smaller calibres may not meet the legal requirements and should definitely not be used when following up a wounded hippo. Use a .375 H&H with a low-power scope (1-4x magnification) as a minimum. Calibres such as .404 Jeffery, .416 Rigby, one of the 9.3mms (.366), or other larger calibres such as .458 Win Mag, .458 Lott, .470 and .500 Nitro Express, .505 Gibbs or even the fearsome .600 Nitro Express are recommended (Figure 2).
Some calibres for hunting hippopotamus
Figure 2: Some rifle calibre choices for hippo
For brain shots a monolithic or expanding solid will work well (Figure 3). Well-constructed softs or expanding solids are well suited to side-on or quartering-away heart / lung shots.
Figure 3: Bullet recovered from a hippo
For bowhunting hippo:
Bow delivering kinetic energy of
100 foot pounds kinetic energy (min.)
Arrow weight 800 – 900 grains (min.) and arrow velocity of 245 fps or more.
Use a fixed blade broadhead of strong construction. Do not use expanding broadheads.
Figure 4: Bow recommendations for hippo
Recommended bowhunting equipment
You will need a powerful bow, heavy arrow and strong, well-constructed single- or two-blade broadhead. The tough, thick skin, dense muscle and heavy bone mass will require every bit of kinetic energy and momentum you can transfer to your arrow. Minimum recommendations are a 95 – 100 lb draw weight bow, shooting an 800 – 900 gr arrow that delivers about 100 – 110 ft-lbs (foot-pounds) of kinetic energy, a momentum of 0.6 lb/s (pounds per second), a TPI (tissue penetration index) of 50+, and a velocity of about 245 fps (feet per second). Strong two-blade broadheads should be used. Design the arrow to have a FOC (front of centre) of 18% or more if possible (Figure 4). The Ashby 315 gr broadhead has proven itself on hippo and is highly recommended.
Use a gun or bow that is up to penetrating thick skin, tough muscle and heavy bone (Figure 5). The skin can be close on 40 mm thick in places and the brain is also protected by thick bone (Figure 6).
Method 1: Shooting from a concealed position when hippo are basking on a riverbank or exiting to feed
If you do not want to sit in an ambush position for hours, you can walk very quietly along a riverbank during mid-morning, using binoculars to scan for hippo that have left the water to sunbathe. You can then plan a stalk to get within range of a shot. Should the hippo become aware of you or be warned by oxpeckers, they will rush into the water (Figure 7).
Figure 5: Hippo have skin that may exceed 40 mm in thickness.
Figure 6: Note the thick wedge of bone in front of the brain.
Figure 7: If hippo are disturbed on land they will usually rush into the nearest available body of water.
If you know of a pool with hippo, find a comfortable ambush position, wait for them to emerge from the water and settle down to sunbathe on the riverbank, and then pick your shot. If it is a good brain shot you will save yourself the hassle of having to haul the dead animal out of the water.
Hippo mostly leave the water to feed at night but may also graze close to the water on cool, overcast days. This may lend itself to walk-and-stalk or ambush options (Figure 8).
Method 2: Shooting the hippo in the water from a concealed position on the riverbank
With this method you do not wait for the hippo to leave the water. If the hippo is submerged, it must come up for air. It can stay underwater for about five minutes before having to come up to breathe. This offers the opportunity for a brain shot. It is important to remain concealed. If the hippo is aware of your presence, it will stick its nostrils out of the water just long enough to snatch a lungful of air and will dive immediately, giving you little time for a shot. However, if the animal is relaxed, it will stick the top part of its head and nostrils out of the water for quite a while before submerging again, giving you time for a well-aimed shot at the brain. The problem with a brain-shot hippo in the water is that it sinks almost immediately. In an isolated pool this is not too much of a hassle. The reason is that a hippo is a hindgut fermenter and prodigious quantities of gas are produced during the fermentation process. The gas will soon inflate the hippo, causing it to bob to the surface within about 20 minutes, which makes recovery a lot easier. You will now have to enter the water to attach a rope to it and haul it out of the water with a vehicle, tractor (Figure 9), winch or manpower. The process is a lot easier if the water is shallow (Figures 10, 11). You will have to exercise caution if there are other hippo or crocodile in the pool.
Figure 8: Hippo may leave the water to graze on cool, overcast days.
Figure 11: A harvest of three hippo (Photo: L Long)
Recovery of the dead animal can be complicated if it is shot in a deep river with current, as it may be washed downstream. This may necessitate a search downstream to find it.
Method 3: Shooting from a boat
This is probably the most hazardous method as you may become a target. With this method the hunter paddles or allows the current to slowly move the boat downstream, and then takes a shot at a hippo on a riverbank or in the water. Hunters using this method are often attacked by aggressive or wounded hippo. If a boat is overturned and the occupants end up in the water, watch out for hippo and crocodile.
Two recommended shots can be considered when hunting hippo with a rifle: the frontal brain shot (preferred), and the side-on or quartering-away heart / lung shot. Anchoring shots should be considered when a hippo shot on land is making a getaway.
Frontal brain shot (Figure 12)
The brain, with a relatively small cross section of 13 cm, is well protected between the eye ridges by thick, dense bone and is a small target to hit. The place to aim for a frontal brain shot is well defined by the hollow between the eyes, and a scope can make it a relatively straightforward shot. When a hippo is in the water with only the head breaking the surface, the brain is the only obvious target.
Figure 9: Hauling hippo out of water is a task for a tractor, 4×4, winch or a lot of manpower.
Figure 12: Frontal brain shot for hippo
Side-on heart shot (Figure 13)
The side-on or quartering-away heart / lung shot, using a well-constructed soft or expanding solid is acceptable although it will not result in the immediate incapacitation of the hippo. The animal will most likely head for and submerge in the closest water (if it is deep enough) or run for cover.
Anchoring shots (Figure 14)
If the animal is shot and wounded on land or in water too shallow to submerge, several things may happen: If the hippo has seen the hunter, it may charge. If on land, it may run for the nearest water to escape. It may also head off into thick bush.
What follows will present the hunter with a variety of shots to anchor or dispatch the animal. A hippo wounded on land or in very shallow water may opt to charge the hunter. If you are between a wounded hippo and its water refuge, chances are that much greater that it will run directly towards you if you are standing in its flight path. From a frontal presentation, only a brain shot will anchor or kill a hippo before it can reach you. Hippo may look big and clumsy but they can move at surprising speed (faster than a human can run) and you may only have the opportunity to get one shot in (possibly two with a double rifle) before it reaches you. With the head held low, frontal chest shots are also out of the question.
A wounded hippo may also run away, presenting either a side-on or rear-end view to the hunter, but posing no immediate threat. The best choice of shot for a lateral (side-on) presentation at a wounded hippo running off would be a high heart / lung shot. The hippo will probably not drop on the spot but will be mortally wounded and will soon expire. A spinal shot from the side, which would result in immediate incapacitation, is an option if the hippo is stationary, but is risky if it is running as the target is relatively small and harder to hit than the heart / lung vital area.
A third option is to break the shoulders (hence the need for a heavy solid bullet) to ‘anchor’ the animal, preventing it from getting away and giving you the chance for follow-up shots. A strong, well-constructed solid or expanding solid may also pass through the shoulder joint or scapula and hit the spine directly behind it with spectacular results. This shot should, however, not be taken in preference to a heart / lung shot but may be considered if you cannot clearly see the heart / lung area.
The most difficult shots will be presented by a hippo headed directly away from you when neither a brain nor a heart / lung shot will be realistic options. These vital organs will also be protected by the heavy bones making up the pelvic girdle. The aim is to drop the animal to prevent its escape, and the base of the spine or hip joints must now be targeted, again requiring heavy solid bullets that will not break up on contact with weighty bones such as the pelvis or femur. Attempting to break the hip with an anchoring shot from the side or back is a dicey proposition because the well-rounded contours of a hippo’s rump make it hard to pick a spot to aim at. If the spine is hit or a hip broken, the animal will be slowed enough to afford the hunter additional and hopefully immediately fatal shots from a suitable position.
There is only one acceptable shot for hippo with a bow, namely a side-on heart / lung shot (Figure 13). Even this shot is demanding of archery equipment. The shot will also have to be taken at reasonably close range (±30 m) and is going to put the archer at risk. A suitably armed professional hunter should be close at hand.
FOLLOWING UP ON WOUNDED HIPPO
A wounded hippo on land is a formidable opponent. They are one of the most aggressive herbivores, accounting for more human deaths each year than all other members of the Big Five combined! They can absorb almost the same amount of punishment from misplaced lead as a wounded buffalo and should be treated with respect. Open sights are strongly advised during a follow-up as it may be difficult to quickly acquire your target through a scope in an emergency. A number of bullet types (expanding and solid) can be considered for hunting hippo, but when it comes to following up a wounded hippo, only solids should be used.
RW: Measure the lenght of both upper and lower tusks in hippo on the outer curve from the base to tip (A-B). Do not card off. Measure the greatest circumference (C) of each of the largest tusks at right angles to the axis of the tusk. Rank according to longest tusk.
Figure 15: Measuring hippo trophies
SCI: Measure the length of both upper and lower tusks in hippo and on the outside curve to the nearest 1⁄16″ (A-B). Measure the greatest circumference of each tusk to 1⁄16″ (C). Total all the measurements.
TROPHY MEASUREMENT AND CURRENT RECORDS
The largest trophy is not necessarily found in the oldest hippo as tusks are inclined to wear after reaching 20 years. They make very impressive shoulder mounts.
Rowland Ward method: Minimum score for inclusion in RW records is 29⁷⁄8″ with the record being 64½”. The method of measurement is shown in Figure 15.
SCI method: Minimum score for inclusion in SCI records is 50 (rifle) and 45 for an animal killed with bow and arrow. The method of measurement is shown in Figure 15. ASM
Cheney, C.S. 2013. The Comprehensive Guide to Tracking.
Mellon, L. 1975. African Hunter. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
New York and London.
Robertson, K. 1999. The Perfect Shot. Safari Press.
Robertson, K. 2007. Africa’s Most Dangerous. Safari Press.