Would you rather stay on a small island and starve to death or jump in the water with a 12-foot Nile crocodile?
This is not a hypothetical thought experiment. These were the only choices left to an impala Wednesday morning just outside of Kruger National Park in South Africa. And when the impala finally made a decision—jumping into the water after the croc had crawled onto the island—it did not end well.
Once the young animal leaps, the crocodile gives chase and rapidly gains ground. Unexpectedly, a hippo charges into the fray, presumably to punish the croc for invading its territory, and the water turns into a boiling cauldron of interspecies conflict.
In the end, the crocodile snags the impala, and another hippo appears, as the pair swims away. The camera zooms in on a few bubbles on the water’s surface—the only clue that the crocodile is hiding below, probably with its jaws still closed tight around its prey.
“It’s very seldom that anybody ever roots for the crocodile, but I guess the croc has to eat, too.” (Related: Sharks and crocodile feast on dead whale in first-ever video)
An Unusual Encounter
This might seem like a situation that plays out all the time on the savannah, but Hendry notes that scenes like this are much more common in the Maasai Mara in Kenya, where zebras, wildebeests, and Thompson’s gazelles must cross a large, deep river teeming with hungry mouths.
In South Africa, rivers tend to be much more shallow and narrow, especially at this time of year. The only other bodies of water are usually small ponds and dams, says Hendry—bbodies of water which animals like impala have little motivation to cross unless absolutely necessary.
In fact, how the animal arrived on the island is a bit of a mystery in itself, though
Hendry suspects the herbivore may have been forced to seek refuge and swim there overnight to escape yet another local predator.
“We have had two female wild dogs running around here causing havoc,” says Hendry, who has authored several books about life in the South African bush.
Croc-on-impala predation is also slightly unusual because crocs don’t eat as many ungulates, or hoofed mammals, as we think.
“Contrary to common misconceptions, crocs mostly feed on aquatic stuff such as fish and turtles,” says Vladimir Dinets, who studies crocodile behavior at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, “but any mammal is also fair game.”
Dinets also says that the impala’s choice was a false one, because crocodiles “are perfectly capable of catching prey on land.”
Hungry Hungry Hippos
As to what the hippos may have been thinking when they came splashing into the frame, that’s anybody’s guess.
Hendry suspects they were targeting the crocodile, since hippos are known to be extremely territorial. But “there are also records of hippos apparently saving ungulates from croc attacks, in a way similar to humpbacks mobbing killer whales and... protecting their prey” from being eaten, Dinets says. (Read: “Why Humpback Whales Protect Other Animals From Killer Whales”)
On the other hand, both Hendry and Denets noted that hippos have been documented stealing kills from crocs and then eating them. This despite the fact that we tend to think of these animals as strict vegetarians.
“It is completely unknown why hippos would ignore crocs most of the time, but then suddenly attack them or interfere with their hunting,” says Denets.
There is one thing at least that can be said with some certainty about the encounter: Between the wild dogs, the crocodile, and the hippos, once that impala became stranded, it had little chance of escape.