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Kenya’s Mzima Spring
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Mzima Springs

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By Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone

In a protected oasis of clear pools, hippos choreograph a remarkable dance of life, joined by dung-eating fish, fish-spearing birds, and contented crocodiles.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Mzima. The word means “alive.” Yet the life of Kenya’s Mzima Springs is largely born of ash and dung. In the neighboring Chyulu Range stand porous peaks of volcanic ash, whose youngest cones formed about 500 years ago. Rising 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) above an arid plain, these hills trap up to three feet (one meter) of rain each year from moisture-laden winds. All that rain soaks into the sponge-like ash and percolates down until it hits impervious bedrock and begins its underground journey to Mzima Springs some 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Filtered over many years, the pure water gushes forth at a steady pace of more than 50 million gallons (190 million liters) a day, creating an oasis at the heart of Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park. We camped there for two years with our two young sons, studying Mzima’s hippos, whose copious deposits of dung nurture a pyramid of life.

Cool and shallow, a shaded spring offers buoyant relief to a herd of ponderous hippos, one of four groups that loll all day in the protected waters of Mzima’s three main pools. By night the hippos graze on nearby grasslands. When they return, their yellowish waste fertilizes the water with vital organic matter.

Nostrils pinched to block out water, an adult hippo stands in a wreath of dung stirred by its footsteps. The consistency of chopped wet hay, the dung provides a hiding place for predatory insects and food for snails and fish. Insects, fish, birds—one feeds the next in an intricate chain anchored by the bulky herbivores that can eat more than a hundred pounds of grass a night. After death, hippos themselves provide food for scavengers like turtles, which lay their eggs on Mzima’s shore. There, in wet-season puddles, shaggy coats of algae sprout on the shells of juveniles. When the turtles later enter the springs, tiny Garra fish mow the shells clean. One Garra became a meal for a water scorpion. The insect hid in hippo dung, then ambushed the fish, snatching it with raptorial forelegs. Larger fish are the favored quarry of the rare African darter, or snakebird, which cocks its neck and strikes like a serpent to spear prey. It took nearly a year of trial and error with various gear to begin to capture our own quarry—photographs of rarely seen behaviors among Mzima’s wildlife.

Wanna see a hippo take a dip? Check out this video.

Nature reveals its remarkable artistry in this month’s desktop wallpaper.

A hippo gets the deluxe cleaning by a school of attendant fish.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

They may look like slow, lumbering, lovable animals, but hippos are more aggressive and dangerous than they appear. They can run faster than a person and bite an adult male crocodile in half. More people are killed in Africa every year by hippos than by any other animal. But they don’t go looking for trouble. Hippos only attack when humans get in their way—bumping them with a canoe, coming between a mother and calf, or blocking their path back to water. Several of the famous African explorers and hunters— Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Selous, Speke—had boating mishaps with hippos.

—Marisa Larson

Go2Africa, Mzima Springs, Kenya
Discover the wonders of these crystal clear springs.

GORP Tsavo National Park
Explore the diversity of Tsavo Park in Kenya.

Animal Diversity Web$narrative.html
Learn about hippo biology and behavior.

Sea World/Busch Gardens, Animal Bytes
Discover strange and interesting facts about hippos.


Camerapix. Spectrum Guide to African Wildlife Safaris. Hunter Publishing, 1989.

Camerapix. Spectrum Guide to Kenya. Facts on File, 1989.

Eltringham, S. Keith. The Hippos: Natural History and Conservation. T and AD Poyser Ltd, 1999.

Fetner, P. Jay. The African Safari: The Ultimate Wildlife and Photographic Adventure. St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Grzimek, Bernhard. Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Nelson, Harold. Kenya: A Country Study. Foreign Area Studies, The American University, Department of the Army, 1984.


DiFiore, Ann. “Hip-Hip Hippo,” World (May 1992), 18-21.

“Mighty Muddy Hippos,” World (October 1981), 30-33.

Root, Joan and Alan. “Mzima, Kenya’s Spring of Life,” National Geographic (September 1971), 350-373.


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