Hippopotamus >>

Numbers and Disrtibution

Figure 10: Distribution of Hippo in Africa
Analysis 4: Status of hippo in Africa
Southern Africa


Historically, the common hippopotamus occupied an extensive range in Africa and was considered abundant. Although the species still occurs widely throughout the continent its dispersion is patchy and uneven (Figure 10). HSG (1993, S.K. Eltringham - pp43-54) estimated the total population of Africa at about 157,000 animals of which 7,000 occurred in West Africa, 70,000 in East Africa and 80,000 in Southern Africa.

It is a curious reflection on current conservation values that the hippopotamus, with a continent wide population of less than 200,000 animals (HSG 1993) is classified as having a satisfactory conservation status under the IUCN Red Data Book system ('widespread and relatively secure') whereas the African elephant with more than 500,000 animals is listed as 'Threatened'.

These estimates were based on questionnaires and information for several countries was unavailable, including Angola. The most recent estimates of HSG (2004) differ very little from this (Analysis 4) and place the continental population between 130,000 and 155,000. Except for the Zambian population which appears to be increasing, hippo are stable or declining in all of the 36 countries included in the census.

In West Africa, hippos exist in small relict populations isolated from each other and are most abundant in estuarine habitats and the lower reaches of rivers, with a few occurring in the sea. The largest numbers are in Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Senegal (-7,000). The group of countries comprising Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso have perhaps 2,000 hippos, Nigeria and Niger a further 500 and Cameroun, Central Africa Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Congo are unlikely to contain more than 2,500 altogether.

In East Africa, surveys have been carried out in a number of countries. Estimates for the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania were 15,483 in 1986, 24,169 in 1989 and 20,589 in 1990 (Games 1990). Several thousand hippo occur elsewhere in Tanzania. In Uganda the main concentrations are in Queen Elizabeth(Ruwenzori) and Murchison Falls national parks. In the early 1950s the Queen Elizabeth park population numbered 21,000 but this was reduced to some 14,000 through culling. The population was further reduced by heavy illegal hunting during the Idi Amin regime and was counted at about 2,000 animals in 1989. The Murchison Falls population suffered a similar fate and numbers are now similar to those in Queen Elizabeth park. The largest numbers in East Africa occurred in eastern Zaire - about 30,000 in 1993 - but HSG (2004) place their present numbers between 2,000 - 4,000. Ethiopia and Sudan may hold 10,000.

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Southern Africa

As stated above, southern Africa contains the largest numbers of hippopotamus on the continent - some 80 000 animals. The major part of the population lies in a belt extending across the region between latitudes 15-25 south of the equator. The potential exists, through the development of trans-frontier conservation areas, for the subpopulations in the countries within this zone to form a single contiguous population across the continent. In the text which follows, the southern African countries are dealt with individually, beginning with two that are not spatially linked to Namibia; continuing with those that border on Namibia; and concluding with Namibia itself. Much of the information is taken from HSG (1993) and HSG (2004).

  1. Mozambique
    Despite the civil strife in the 1980s and 1990s, a surprising number of hippopotamus appear to have survived in Mozambique. The species is still widely distributed and present on most river systems. Several State protected areas contain hippopotamus although only Gorongosa, with about 2,000, has a sizeable population. Tello (1986 in HSG 1993) estimated the total population between 16,000 and 20,500 for the country as a whole with most (10,000-12,000) in the Zambezi Wildlife Utilization Area which includes Marromeu Reserve and four safari hunting blocks. HSG (2004) now estimates the population at 18,000 animals.
  2. Malawi
    Malawi is densely populated with hippopotamus. The main concentrations are at Elephant Marsh on the lower Shire River, the southwest arm of Lake Malawi, Upper Shire River and Lake Malombe in Liwonde National Park. R.H.V. Bell estimated some 10,000 hippopotamus in the whole of Malawi in 1993 and HSG (2004) has not altered this estimate.
  3. Zambia
    There are probably more hippopotamus in Zambia than in any other single country. Goddard (1970) estimated the Luangwa River population at about 9,000 animals and Sayer & Rakha (1974) carried out studies on some 1,000 animals cropped from this population. R.H.V. Bell estimated the number in the Luangwa Valley to be between 20,000-25,000 in 1993. Munyenyembe (in HSG 1993) put the country-wide total at 40,000. At that time they were widespread on the Kafue Flats and in Lochinvar National Park.
    The hippo in the Luangwa River suffered a major anthrax outbreak in the early 1990s. The high densities of hippo provided conducive conditions for an epidemic and mortality was severe. However, the present population appears to have recovered to its former level. Cropping of hippo in the Luangwa has continued up to the present date. The author observed hippo meat being distributed in the 1980s and 1990s at Nyamaluma where an ongoing community-based natural resource management programme is in place (Dale Lewis pers.comm.)
    Of relevance to Namibia is the hippo population in the south-west of Zambia. HSG (1993) show hippo as being present along the Zambezi as far north as point where the river enters Angola. M. Eustace (pers.comm.) confirms their presence in moderate numbers in Sioma- Ngwezi and Liuwa Plains national parks and along the portion of the Zambezi linking these parks. In a survey of the Caprivi last year, Stander (2004) counted only 17 hippo on the Zambezi upstream of the Chobe confluence and it would seem that the dense settlement along the river coupled with illegal hunting does not provide favourable conditions for a large hippo population.
  4. Angola
    Shortridge (1934) presents a conflicting narrative of hippo abundance in Angola with some reports suggesting hippo were 'disappearing more rapidly than any other game in Angola' and others stating that hippo were numerous in the south-east on the Kwando, Quito and Luiana rivers (Wilhelm 1931). Both HSG (1993 and 2004) were unable to obtain data in compiling their status report but quote Sydney (1965) as stating hippo were widespread throughout Angola and numerous on the Cunene, Cubango, Cuando, Cuanza, Longa, and Zambezi Rivers.
    Beytell (pers.comm.) states that UNITA annihilated most of the hippo along the Okavango River in the Angolan civil war (1980s and 1990s). Chase & Griffin (2004), in carrying out a survey for elephants in the Luiana Partial Reserve, recorded sightings of other species but do not mention hippo amongst these.
  5. Botswana
    Except in the north of the country, most of Botswana is too dry for hippopotamus (like Namibia). Hippo occur in the Okavango Delta and in the Chobe/Linyanti River system. A few (18+) exist on the Limpopo river in the east.ULG (1995) confirm the presence of hippo on the Limpopo although none were counted within their aerial survey transects.
    In 1993, C.A. Spinage put the total population in northern Botswana at 1,600 in the wet season and 500 in the dry. ULG (1995) estimated the total hippo population of Botswana at 2,859 in 1994 (mean of wet and dry seasons) with fairly wide 95% confidence intervals (1,816 - 3,902). The authors are careful to point that standard sample survey techniques are unsuitable for counting hippos. From an examination of previous surveys, they concluded that hippo were declining in northern Botswana at an alarming rate of 33% per annum.
    Stander (2004) counted 1,123 hippo in Mamili National Park and on the Kwando and Chobe-Linyanti rivers of which only those counted on the portion of the Kwando inside the Caprivi (Babwata East) could be considered as belonging exclusively to Namibia (159 animals). In 1994, Rodwell (et al 1995) counted 220 hippo in this same stratum in the course of a transect survey which was not designed specifically to count hippo. Their estimate for Mamili was 472 animals (versus 560 counted by Stander in 2004). They saw no hippo in Mudumu where Stander (2004) counted 34 animals.
  6. Zimbabwe
    Hippo are found on most of the large rivers (the Zambezi, Sabi, Lundi and Limpopo) and also occur in smaller rivers and darns where there is permanent water. Some wander over long distances providing isolated records. "The only estimate for the country-wide total is that made by R. B. Martin on the basis of some limited counts, which have revealed some dense populations e.g. 2,000 on a 50 km section of the Zambezi. His estimate is 6,900, of which 5,530 occur in national parks or reserves, 1,020 on communal lands and 350 elsewhere" (HSG 1993).
  7. South Africa
    Shortridge (1934) gives an intriguing narrative of the original distribution and disappearance of hippo in South Africa.
    Hippopotamus are now confined to the northeast of the country, mainly in the Transvaal and the northern tip of Natal. The largest numbers are in the Kruger National Park in perennial rivers, dams and pools on seasonal rivers. The total counted in the park in 1989 was 2,761 with 2,575 in rivers and 191 in dams and pools. R.H. Taylor estimated about 1,500 for Natal and Kwazulu in 1986, with the largest concentration (595) being on Lake St Lucia. HSG (2004) give the current hippo population in South Africa as between 3,000 and 5,000.
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The disappearance of hippo in South Africa

In 1652 hippo occurred in the swamp which is now Church Square in Capetown and were common on the Cape Flats. They were still abundant around Capetown in the 1700s and were recorded in the Gamtoos and Krom Rivers near Humansdorp, the Fish and Sunday Rivers east of Port Elizabeth and the Kei River at the extreme of the eastern Cape. In the 1800s they were plentiful on the Orange River upstream of the Seekoei River near Colesberg and in the Berg River north of Capetown. Burchell noted their presence at the junction of the Vaal and Orange Rivers in 1811. Harris recorded them on the Molopo River near Mafeking and on the upper Limpopo River in Pretoria district in1838. They were also present in all the Natal Rivers.

The chronicle then changes to one of elimination. A single hippo remained in the Fish River in 1853, hippo were shot in the Keiskama River in 1854, the last hippo was shot in the Buffalo River (East London) in 1862, the last hippo was shot in the Berg River in 1874, the last hippo was shot in the Umsimvubu River (Port St. Johns) in 1890, a number of hippo were shot in the Umtata River mouth from 1893-1895, hippo were exterminated in Sea Cow lake in 1898, the last hippo disappeared from the lower Orange River after 1925 and the famous 'Huberta' was killed on the Keiskama River near Peddie in 1931.

In 1928, 'Huberta' left St. Lucia in Zululand and undertook a trek of 1,600km around South Africa. At various times she settled in the Umhlanga and Umgeni Rivers near Durban, walked the beaches of Durban, then crossed 122 rivers to reach Kingwilliamstown and East London in 1931. She became a national heroine and enjoyed regular reports in the South African and international press. She was killed by three hunters on the Keiskama river in 1931 who were fined 25 each.