An Incident at the Waterhole

Easter Sunday 2019, and the Okavango Delta was experiencing one of its worst droughts for many years. All wildlife depends on water. Many of the waterholes had dried up, putting pressure on any pools remaining. So why were these hippos fighting, as there seemed to be enough water here?

When we had arrived at the waterhole fifteen minutes earlier, all was tranquil. Four young male elephants were standing on one side of the pool, while three hippos lay submerged on the other. Although they watched each other warily, they were all pretty relaxed, and a maribou stork, an egret and several shelduck basked by the water’s edge.   The next thing we saw was a herd of elephant heading purposefully towards the water. Sensing that something might happen, we stayed discretely in our vehicle, parked thirty or so metres away.

I had my cameras ready; my D810 with the 24-120mm zoom, and D7100 with the 70-200mm zoom. At this point you have no idea what is going to happen; you might get the best picture you will ever take, or something more mundane, but you need to be prepared for any eventuality. At this distance, my best option was to have the widest zoom lens coverage. Many of these images were at 200mm on the D7100, and then subsequently slightly cropped. In these situations I tend to shoot slightly wider than I need, and then crop afterwards to make sure I don’t miss the action. In a perfect world I would have used a longer lens, but it would have been a mistake to have switched to my 300mm prime, the only other long lens I had with me, as that would have been too restrictive. This is one of the few occasions where an expensive super zoom would have been useful.

Spotting some very small babies amongst the herd, guarded by their protective mothers, one of the bachelor elephants decided on discretion and headed for the bush. The remaining three bachelors moved discretely to the other side of the pond away from the approaching herd. The hippos meanwhile, seemed remarkably unconcerned, and continued wallowing.

This peace did not last. The arriving elephants were obviously desperate for water and proceeded to splash around, wallowing and rolling, like a group of drunken tourists at a hotel pool.

Our three bachelors, trying to keep out of trouble, moved politely away from the main herd and closer to the hippos. At this point the hippos, pushed closer together, started fighting. Thrashing about in the muddy water, their furious anger was directed at each other.

The fighting got worse, with muddy water sprayed everywhere, as you can see in my first image. Eventually the three bachelors, soon followed by the main herd, retreated from the pool to the safety of the surrounding grassland.

Gradually the hippos calmed down, and peace was restored. One of the elephants had remained, oblivious to the chaos, catching up on her drinking. While this was happening, the birds around the shore of the pool barely moved; for them this was obviously a normal Sunday morning at the waterhole.

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