Read My Lips

Hippos have a bad reputation. They’re often called the most dangerous animal in Africa and are said to be responsible for killing more people than any other wild creature. But interestingly, when I tried to verify the basis of this assertion, I could not find evidence that anyone had ever compiled data about hippo casualties that might prove that claim. Regardless, hippos warrant respect, no matter whether you encounter them in the water or on land.

One day when I was working in a remote part of the Okavango Delta, I came upon a large pod of hippos in a swampy pool, with a territorial bull fending off other males trying to move in on his harem from the fringes. To get to the edge of the muddy shoreline for a closer view of the action, I had to leave my vehicle behind and cross soggy ground. I made my way to the edge of the water and crouched low to shoot with my camera mounted on a shoulder stock for more stability. I watched the bull face off against his rivals and gambled that he was too preoccupied to pay attention to me. But then I discovered the level of his awareness—and the limit of his tolerance. He turned around, agitated, and confronted me like I was another rival.

The core of a hippo threat display is a wide-open gape—a gesture that people sometimes mistake for mere yawning. Gaping reveals a hippo’s formidable canines. But hippos are vegetarians; their canines are assets used only in battle. What I saw through my lens could never be mistaken for sleepiness: His upright body position, perked ears and bulging eyes were exclamation points on his gape. I lingered only long enough to squeeze off a few frames while I was eye-to-eye with his mouth—and his message.

Sign up now for one of Frans Lanting’s new Spring and Fall photo workshops at his studio in coastal California. Visit for more details.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.