PBS’ “Hippo King” captures the heartbreak and the glory of a young hippo’s journey to maturity.

Hippo King takes an unflinching look at the life of a hippo as he grows from a young member of a pod into the dominant male.

From Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, an old, battle-scarred hippo bull has an incredible story to tell. Previously hippos were almost always misunderstood because their secret life happens beneath the water and under the cover of darkness. This tale imagines a story of 35 years from when the hippo was a vulnerable orphan to the ultimate battle that crowns him king decades later. From birth to exile to redemption, follow the life of the Hippo King and discover the true character of one of Earth’s largest land mammals.

Hippo King premiers tonight (April 6 at 8 p.m. ET) on PBS. It can also be viewed online on the PBS website. The filmmakers, Will and Lianne Steenkamp, discussed their film with SCINQ.

Hippo King takes an interesting approach. It imagines the life of a hippo using actual footage. It charts the rise of a hippo from his youth until his final days as the dominant male in a hippo bloat. In essence, it is a traditional coming of age story. Where did the idea come from?

When we arrived in South Luangwa eleven years ago, we were surprised by the fascinating hippo behavior we witnessed and filmed. Over the years we realized there was so much more to these incredible herbivores than what most people believe them to be. We knew that one day, we would make an intimate, character-driven film about them. But to portray them in the right light, to do them justice, we were going to need time…  

The transformation between seasons is a major theme in the film. Why was it important to highlight?

The different seasons play a major role in a hippo’s life. While hippos thrive in the wet season, – with plenty of grass and water around -, they really do suffer when the dry season is at its worst, – with all the grass having perished and most water sources turning to dust. Luangwa’s season changes are pretty extreme, and for a hippo it simply transforms from a paradise into a hell, so this was important to highlight in our hippo’s life story. Each year the seasons have a huge impact on a hippo’s way of life.

A dominant hippo bull patrols his beach. (Credit: © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Skyland Productions + Into Nature Productions.)

Some of the footage is stunning. Where/how did you get it?

We spent a lot of time along the river with specific hippo pods, focused on certain individuals of different ages, always with our ‘coming of age’ story in mind. We invested hours, days and weeks with very little happening, but when something did eventually happen – almost always unexpectedly – we were ready to capture it. 

Hippos spend the majority of the day submerged in water, so we had to be patient. But we really believed that by spending the time out there, the most amazing stories would come to life, and we would be able to collect the necessary footage to tell this beautiful tale. 

Apart from making use of long lenses with 8K cameras and drones, we also used a Phantom Flex, a high-speed camera, to get some incredible slow motion shots – there is simply no better way to show those impressive tusks with water dripping out of its mouth as he rises…  

Following a hippo calf and mother around is a very powerful storyline. What is their relationship like and why is it important?

A hippo mother and calf are surprisingly close and a mother may be seen with several of her calves from different ages. A hippo mom is fiercely protective of her young, as we show at the beginning of our story, and they may stay together for several years. They forage together and protect one another when confronted by lions, and they often move together to join different pods. For our story it was important to show this strong bond between mother and son – it allows the viewer to find some resemblance in this large herbivore that shows very little emotion and is hard to understand and feel close to. Highlighting the bond between mother and calf helps the viewer to feel more connected to them.

Hippo teenagers sparring, which is good practice for future battles for dominance. (Credit: Will Steenkamp / © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Skyland Productions + Into Nature Productions.)

Hippos do a lot more fighting and sparring and they like to show off their tusks. What social role does that play among hippos?

Intra species communication in hippos is quite unique, especially compared to other animals such as our big cats or even elephants. Unlike lions, for instance, hippos have very little facial expressions, and any body posturing is mostly underwater. 

As with most other animals, knowing how to show submission or dominance, threat or defense, courtship or non-interest, hippos need to communicate in some way, and displaying their tusks (like during their typical yawn posturing) is a way of warning an opponent, or showing off its strength – it’s an effective way to show off one’s armor. Sparring is done by calves and adolescents and is a way of practicing for future battles. 

Like with all other young animals that spend time sparring, it is how they learn to become strong and develop their fighting skills, so that they will be able to defend themselves or battle for dominance when reaching adulthood.

Mother dying was a particularly brutal moment, but one that must happen countless times in nature. What was its significance?

Mortality in wild animal species, as with any living creature, is inevitable. For hippos this is all the more a reality when the dry season hits hard. 

As tragic as it was, the mother dying allowed us to show how strong the bond between a hippo mother and her youngster really is. Through the young hippo’s eyes, the viewer experiences his mother’s death with much more emotion than if it were any hippo. Her death was a major turning point in our character’s life, suddenly he had to fend for himself, without the guidance and protection from his mother. 

The hard reality of the loss of his mother also came abruptly, as the very predators devouring his mother nearly killed him too. He had to grow up fast, and he did.

Apart from that, the significance too lies in the fact that it was a natural death. With human encroachment into our last remaining wild spaces on Earth, wildlife trade, poaching and human-wildlife conflict are often the cause of wildlife mortalities, so in a twisted kind of way, this death scene has some poetic beauty as it was totally natural, as part of a fully functional wild natural system, mostly free of human influence or impact. 

A dominant hippo bull is threatening a younger hippo bull by swiping his head from side to side, with razor sharp tusks slicing through the water. (Credit: Will Steenkamp / © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Skyland Productions + Into Nature Productions.)

What is the dominant male’s role in a bloat?

The dominant bull’s role in a pod of hippos, is primarily that of procreation. Of course he needs to defend his harem against other rival hippo bulls which is a very important aspect of hippo ecology.

After being expelled from a bloat, is fighting the dominant male the only way back into one?

Not really… As we show in this film, by being submissive it allowed our young adult bull hippo to find a temporary home with a new pod of hippos. As the narration says so powerfully, “sometimes giving in, gives you what you need”. A dominant bull will allow any submissive males to become part of his group.

A lone hippo returns to the river at sunrise after a night out grazing on land. (Credit: © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Skyland Productions + Into Nature Productions.)

What would you like audiences to take away from the film?

We wanted to make a character-driven life story of a hippo with the aim to bring our viewers a little closer to understanding and appreciating this remarkable herbivore. As they are so often misunderstood and seen as the most dangerous animal in Africa, we hope our film will bring a different perspective of them. We hope the audience will be inspired to do what they can to protect these wonderful animals along with these last remaining wild places on Earth. 

Hopefully seeing these beautiful images of wild animals roaming free, will inspire them to also travel. It might be surprising to hear, but responsible tourism plays a major role in the conservation of these wild places. So by merely going on safari – in this case that might be the stunning Luangwa Valley in Zambia – people actually do a lot to help protect not just the enigmatic animals they might see, but the very habitats they live in, which are fundamentally crucial for all life on Earth.

IMAGE CREDIT: Will Steenkamp / © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Skyland Productions + Into Nature Productions.

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