The Hippo King brings the life of a hippo to the screen

Posted on 18 October 2021

A decade ago, Will and Lianne Steenkamp arrived in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, which has the world’s largest concentration of hippos. Known for their big cat films, most notably Leopard Legacy, the filmmakers’ heads were turned by the massive mammals.

‘Over the years we witnessed and filmed some unusual scenes, during which we realised how little was known about these large mammals in the wild, with much of their behaviour not well studied or understood,’ say the directors of The Hippo King, a new, unusual documentary.

Speaking about the move from big cats, Will Steenkamp says: ‘Time and again, we would observe incredible moments and behaviour shown by these underrated animals. They have surprised us on so many occasions, displaying social behaviour not quite documented in literature. We’ve seen behaviour that could be seen as compassion, we’ve seen a softer side of the animal often accused of being the most deadly in Africa.’

The Hippo King is a collection of true events brought together in one special narrative, where an old, battle-scarred hippo bull brings us the incredible story of what it is like to grow up and to survive in the magical but tough wilderness of South Luangwa.

‘Our aim was to create a character-driven story entailing the lifecycle of a hippo bull. The life of a hippo easily encompasses 35 years, so following and documenting just one individual would never be a possibility,’ say the directors.

To tell the complete story of a mature hippo bull with its different stages in life, from birth to adulthood, the filmmakers documented a range of different hippos over the course of four years. ‘We followed calves, subadults, adults and dominant bulls, during which we gained an intimate insight into what a hippo goes through during these different life stages,’ they add.

Speaking about making the film, Will Steenkamp says: ‘We have a strict policy to keep a respectable distance to the animals we film, and in general that avoids “hairy” moments. There are moments when animals come closer to you, when the best response is to keep calm and like they say in the wildlife industry “whatever you do, don’t run”.

‘Of course a hippo is an entirely different animal, very unpredictable and difficult to “read”. They do not show emotions as obvious as you’d find in the facial expression of a lion, or the body language of an elephant. That said, we count ourselves lucky that we have not experienced moments where we doubted the outcome.’

The Hippo King is 52-minute Ultra HD (4K) documentary released in September this year. It had its world premiere in Austria and will be broadcast worldwide soon. Broadcast in the rest of the world, including southern Africa, will be announced in due course.

Watch the official trailer:

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