The mysterious life of the pygmy hippo in the jungle of West Africa is being uncovered in an SOS-funded conservation project to save the species from extinction.
Pygmy hippos are so secretive that their very existence was regarded as a myth by western zoologists until the mid-1800s. Fewer than 3,000 are believed to survive today, scattered across the forests of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte D’Ivoire and Guinea. Numbers have declined through habitat loss and hunting.
A forest legend
Unlike its gregarious larger cousin, the common hippo, the pygmy hippo doesn’t form large groups in rivers and lakes, generally living a solitary life that is surrounded by folklore. One story suggests that the hippo finds its way through the forest at night by carrying a diamond in its mouth which lights its path. By day the hippo is said to hide the diamond and if a hunter is lucky enough to catch a hippo at night, the belief is that the diamond can be taken.
A project supported by the SOS-Save Our Species programme in which IUCN is a partner, is uniting conservationists across the region to spot pygmy hippos using a network of hidden cameras in an effort to identify important areas in which to work with local villagers to protect the animals. A pygmy hippo conservation road map has been laid out to safeguard the species led by IUCN’s Hippo Specialist Group and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). This is supported by government agencies and universities in West Africa as well as local and international NGOs.
Scientists from Njala University in Sierra Leone and ZSL are carrying out a national assessment in Sierra Leone to determine where pygmy hippos are found. The assessment will cover more than 70,000km2 of possible pygmy hippo range and will help identify priority sites for conservation.
In December 2010, a new population of pygmy hippos was confirmed in the waterways at the foot of Loma Mountain, northern Sierra Leone and may be the most significant population in Sierra Leone, outside the Gola Forests. Several former hunters from the local village have been hired to work on the project, providing them with an alternative income to hunting. Community engagement and awareness is ongoing and camera traps and other survey techniques are now being used to determine the size and full extent of this population.
One community around Loma Mountain has pledged to stop hunting the pygmy hippo and not to hunt any species in areas where pygmy hippos are most common.
“This is a significant result but it is just the beginning”, explains Chris Ransom, Programme Manager for ZSL’s conservation work in West Africa. “We need to continue working on these issues in the same area in order to bring more significant breakthroughs in the long run.”
The fate of the pygmy hippo is intrinsically linked to that of the forest. Securing a future for the pygmy hippo goes hand in hand with securing many other forest species including the forest elephant, western chimpanzee, Liberian mongoose and Jentink’s duiker.