Break It Up! Territorial Hippos 'Save' Wildebeest from Crocodile Attack

On a trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa, Tokkie and Mervyn Van Wyk noticed the unfortunate wildebeest by the Transport Dam water hole when a crocodile clamped its jaws down on one of the wildebeest's back legs, according to a description of the Kruger Sightings video.

As seen in the video, at first, the crocodile tries to pull the herbivore into the water to drown it, but the energetic wildebeest resists by heaving itself far onto the banks of the water hole. As 8 minutes pass, the crocodile pulls the tiring wildebeest farther into the water until the wildebeest, drained from the struggle, is submerged to its haunches.

Then, from deeper within the water hole, enter two unlikely saviors: a pair of hippos. [Camera Trapped: Elusive Wildlife Caught in Photos]

As the hippos approach, the crocodile, likely scared off by the hulking beasts, disappears into the water. The wildebeest, with its chomped hoof dangling, hobbles away.

Upon first watching the scene, Rebecca Lewison, a professor of biology at San Diego State University jokingly exclaimed, "See, hippos — look how they're noble!," before quickly clarifying that the hippos were more likely just being territorial.

Doug McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, expressed a similar sentiment. "You want to give the hippo a high five for saving the wildebeest," he said, adding that, in his opinion, the hippopotamuses drove the crocodile off to stop the disturbance in the water hole caused by the predator's battle with its prey.

Hippos typically don't protect any hard-and-fast range, nor do they often have run-ins with crocs, according to Lewison.

"They're certainly amiable roommates — that don't talk to each other," Lewison said, describing the ordinary level of interaction between the two species.

Hippopotamuses aren't usually bothered by a terrestrial animal like a giraffe or a wildebeest drinking at the edge of a water hole, McCauley said. But during his work with hippopotamuses in Kenya and Tanzania, he has seen the animals drive off elephants noisily bathing in a river, he said. On more than one occasion, he said, he himself sparked a hippopotamus' ire by collecting water samples and fish traps at the edge of hippo-occupied rivers.

As such, McCauley said this rare hippo-croc run-in at Kruger National Park likely occurred because this prolonged battle between the wildebeest and crocodile triggered the hippos' stress responses, impelling the animals to drive off the croc simply to reinstate peace in the water hole. The resulting escape of the wildebeest, McCauley and Lewison agreed, was just an unintended side effect.  

Unfortunately for the wildebeest, the future still looks grim. According to McCauley, it's unlikely that an injured animal will last even one night in Kruger National Park.

"It sort of dodged one bullet but is unlikely to miss the next one from terrestrial predators — lions, hyenas, that sort of thing — unless it's somehow able to shake off that injury to that hind leg, which looks like it's quite severe," McCauley said.

Original article on Live Science.

Sarah B. Puschmann
Staff Writer
Sarah Puschmann is a staff writer for Live Science. She particularly enjoys writing about ecology and evolution and has degrees in creative writing and physics. Before joining Live Science, she taught English in Korea, Costa Rica, Argentina, Sweden, and Germany. Follow her on Twitter.