Waterways in the wilds of northern Botswana are often teeming with hippos and crocs, which can make things tricky for terrestrial species trying to safely navigate this water-rich landscape. For the lions that rule these floodlands, water crossings are a necessity. But things don't always go to plan. While attempting to trudge across a deep waterway recently a lion found itself in a high-stakes tussle with a hippo that didn't take kindly to the cat entering its territory. 

The action was filmed by Jon Leman – a guest at Great Plains Conservation's Selinda Camp situated in a private 130,000-hectare reserve sandwiched between the water systems of the Okavango Delta and Linyanti River  – and shows a trio of male lions attempting to wade across the water when a hippo spots the cats and motors in to see them off. Although hippos spend much of their time bobbing about in rivers, dams and spillways, the hefty mammals can't actually swim, per se. To propel themselves through the water hippos 'gallop' along the ground below the surface, relying on the perfect combination of bone density and buoyancy to allow them to thrust their heavy bodies forward with surprising speed. It's something lions certainly can't do with the same efficiency and it didn't take long for the hippo in Lenman's footage to catch up with the paddling cats.

As the hippo charges in, one of the lions abandons the crossing and turns tail leaving the other two to deal with the belligerent beast. Mouth agape, the hippo thrusts itself at one of the lions forcing the cat to porpoise its way out of the water, growling all the while in discontent. Luckily for the lion the hippo seemed happy to simply see off the threat and did not chomp down on the cat allowing it to escape uninjured. 

Hippos are notoriously territorial and are known to actively chase off any unwanted animals entering their water space. Even on dry land, these mega mammals are not to be messed with (as one lion discovered when it snuck up on a sleeping hippo). These cantankerous behemoths usually spend the daylight hours semi-submerged and only exit the water at night to graze. Although their bulk and toothy armoury usually ensure that they do not become victims of nocturnal hunters, even hippos fall prey to lions on occasion. According to reports from Selinda, the lions that became stranded on the opposite bank during the hippo encounter eventually crossed at a different point and the pride was able to attack and kill a hippo the following day. It seems the cats had the last say.

"Turf War" tells the story of a dramatic standoff between lions and hippos as they struggle to survive through the dry season in Zambia's Luangwa Valley. (Click the button at the top right of the trailer to stream the film).

Top header image: Arno Meintjes, Flickr