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NATURE: Hippos: Africa’s River Giants

Airs Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 19 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2

An adult hippo play-fights with a juvenile, teaching the younger hippo to def...

Credit: Credit: © The Natural History Film Unit Botswana

Above: An adult hippo play-fights with a juvenile, teaching the younger hippo to defend itself against dangers.

Go beneath the surface and meet Africa's river giants, the hippos

The hippopotamus has long been an enigma: an aquatic mammal that cannot swim, a vegetarian that is also the most dangerous animal in Africa.

All hippos are utterly dependent on water, but in Botswana hippos face an unparalleled challenge as deep floodwaters dry to dust in a matter of months.

NATURE "Hippos: Africa’s River Giants" goes beneath the surface to show how hippos protect their families and face their enemies, revealing an animal that is highly sensitive and surprisingly intelligent.

Narrated by David Attenborough, this documentary uncovers the life and true nature of the hippo as never seen before.

Hippos: Africa's River Giants - Preview

Go beneath the surface and meet Africa’s river giants, the hippos. Discover an unexpected side of these aquatic mammals that can’t even swim as hippos protect their families, face their enemies and suffer in a drought. Narrated by David Attenborough.

Noteworthy Facts:

  • The dense structure of a hippo’s bones and the weight of its body make hippos unable to swim.
  • Hippos can’t breathe underwater; they must hold their breath to walk along the bottom of the delta. In order to catch a breath, the hippo will push off the bottom and rise to the surface to breathe.
  • Mating between hippos takes place within the shallows, where their heavy bodies are better supported. Mating can last up to 30 minutes.
  • Hippos have sensitive hearing, poor eyesight and a nervous nature which all lead to their skittish and aggressive behavior.
  • Pregnant hippos carry their calves for eight months. While pregnant, the female hippo will separate herself from the pod and find a quiet, shallow pool of water to give birth.
  • When the Okavango Delta dries up and food is scarce, hippos regurgitate grass from their stomachs and chew it again as a source of sustenance. This leads scientists to believe they may have a ruminating digestive system like cows.

Watch a Protective Mother Hippo Guard Her Baby

Weighing only 4% as much as an adult, a baby hippo is completely dependent on its mother. The pair stays isolated from the rest of the pod, allowing the calf to imprint on his mother and for the two to forge a vital bond.

Buzzworthy Moments:

  • A nomadic male hippo lurks around a dominant bull’s pool, where the bull spots the intruder and gets defensive of his pod. The dominant bull approaches the intruder and they begin gaping at each other until the bull defeats and chases the intruder away, leaving him with gruesome wounds.
  • Once a calf is several weeks old, the mother will bring it back to the pod to get it acquainted with the rest of the family. Returning to a pod with a new baby is risky, and once the mother gets past the dominant bull, her previous calf shows up wanting to check out her mother’s newest baby. The jealous older sibling starts pushing the baby around, causing the mother hippo to get aggressive and gape at her older calf until she runs off.
  • The nomadic hippo dies from his injuries. As crocodiles begin to feast on the hippo carcass, the dominant bull chases them away and inspects it. When night falls, hyenas drag the body to shore and begin to tear it apart. The crocodiles return for the carcass and stand off against the hyenas for access. The hippo pod hears the noise and scares everyone away from the corpse.

Hippos Battle Lions and Hyenas Over Carcass

The scent of a decaying hippo attracts all sorts of predators to the hippo's ground, where they must put up a fight to protect their own. The hippos prove that size does matter in the animal kingdom, as they fight off hyenas, lions and crocodiles.

Watch On Your Schedule:

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The DVD is available to purchase at

Inside NATURE – Hippos: Africa's River Giants

Hippos have a formidable reputation, killing about 500 people across Africa every year. Few filmmakers have attempted to capture their lives in detail, but director Brad Bestelink was determined to take up the challenge.

Join The Conversation:

NATURE is on Facebook, and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter. #NaturePBS

Photo credit: Credit: © The Natural History Film Unit Botswana

Two young hippo calves bond and play in the waters next to their sleeping mother.


NATURE is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and PBS. For NATURE, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. Bill Murphy is series producer and Janet Hess is series editor. "Hippos: Africa’s River Giants" is an Icon Films and Natural History Film Unit Botswana production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC in association with WNET. The documentary is produced, directed and filmed by Brad Bestelink. Harry Marshall is creative director, and Laura Marshall and Lucy Meadows are executive producers.

Photo credit: Credit: © The Natural History Film Unit Botswana

A hippo yawns to display aggression and hostility rather than sleepiness.


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