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Pygmy Hippopotamus

Hexaprotodon Liberinesis Heslopi

The Species and its Habitat

Pygmy HippopotamusThe Pygmy Hippopotamus is unique to Africa and is found primarily in the forests of Liberia, West Africa - with a few small populations surviving in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast. Only an eighth the size of the more widespread River Hippo, the Pygmy Hippo was first described by scientists in the 1840s from specimens collected in Liberia.

The Pygmy Hippo is a grey-greenish black colour, about 5ft long, 30 - 39" tall and weighing between 397 and 605 lbs. It is thought it can live up to 35 years in the wild.

Although habitat loss, as with many wildlife species, is the primary cause of the reduction in Pygmy Hippo numbers, local hunting for is also a major threat. Pygmy Hippo are quite solitary and secretive by nature and spend much more time out of the water than the River Hippo. Foraging for food in the forests, they run for the protection of streams or rivers only in times of danger.

Very little information exists on the behaviour of Pygmy Hippo in the wild and their survival is highly dependent on the existence of protected forests. By conserving the Pygmy Hippo, a host of other threatened and endangered species are also protected.

Conservationists in Liberia consider the Pygmy Hippo to be the country's flagship wildlife species and they are working to educate the public. But only the establishment of proper forest reserves will allow the Pygmy Hippo to survive.

Project Leader: Alexander Peal

Alexander PealMy first job as District Forest Officer in Grebo Forest Reserve in 1970 opened my eyes to the plight of my country's amazing array of wildlife. At that time the Reserve was teeming with wildlife. Unfortunately with ineffectual anti-hunting laws, it was open season on all animals, including the Pygmy Hippo.

I became interested in the Pygmy Hippo when the local people told stories about a mystical animal that carries a shining stone in its mouth to light its path at night. Another story described the slippery texture of its body and how this made it difficult to capture or hunt. Legend said spears, arrows and even bullets would be deflected. My interest increased further when I met Dr. Phillip Robinson, who had written his Masters' Thesis on the range of the Pygmy Hippo. I learned that Liberia was the core of its limited range and the primary host country for the species. Dr. Robinson indicated that during his studies not one sighting was made. This was frightening as it raised the possibility of the animal's extinction. However, we finally did see one together on the Sinoe River in eastern Liberia in 1982, during one of our surveys to establish the Sapo National Park.

Two of our most serious challenges are deforestation and the lack of trained conservation professionals. There is a critical need for sustainable forest management practices as well as control of human settlements and subsistence farming activities in national forests. In addition, a comprehensive public education and awareness programme, along with pilot rural agriculture and development projects, are vital to encouraging local interest in conservation.

Alexander won the prestigious Goldman Award in 2000, the world's largest conservation award and has been shortlisted in 2001 for the Whitley Award.

The Pygmy Hippopotamus Conservation Project, Liberia

The Pygmy Hippo project is one of the most important to be conducted during Liberia's post-war era and the first since 1968. While my country was immersed in a civil war for seven years, conservation work came to a standstill. With peace however, renewed logging and hunting activities are beginning, making the prompt application of conservation initiatives very timely to secure valued conservation assets.

The future of this species in the wild is entirely dependent upon the success of habitat conservation in this country. Liberia has the largest remaining areas of West Africa's Upper Guinea Forest, but has only one fully protected area of rainforest. The Pygmy Hippo is considered to be 'threatened' by the loss of forest habitat, for example the opening of access corridors for the Cavalla Forestry Project in Liberia resulted in a 10% drop in the Pygmy Hippopotamus population within one year.


Pygmy HippopotamusProject Update

SUBJECT : Budgetary Support for the Conservation of the Pygmy Hippopotamus in the Sapo National Park

The original project site for bio-monitoring the Pygmy Hippopotamus and other indicator species was changed to the Sapo National Park in order to guarantee long-term security and maintain consistency in data collection. Since the preliminary survey in the Cestos-Senkwehn Rivershed Forest in 1999, intensive and uncontrolled logging operations have degraded the forest. This activity has attracted movements of people into the area thereby creating settlement and encouraged shifting agriculture. The area lacks legal protection and security for such an investment. The Sapo National Park, on the other hand, is the only protected area in the country that offers the best field conditions for effective planning and management of the species.

Primary objectives

The first objective of the project is to conduct a detailed field survey of the pygmy hippopotamus in the southeastern forest region in order to understand the existing population, verify its viability, formulate a conservation plan for the species in its natural habitat and develop a rapid indicator index specific to the Liberian forest ecosystem. This objective remains basically the same and the below budget is intended to complement other sources of support. The pygmy hippopotamus is known to survive in relatively undisturbed forests and since the adjacent forests to the Park are relatively in good condition it is appropriate to consider expanding the project to these areas.

The second objective is a promotional strategy for the species and its habitat that requires designing a communication mechanism for greater public awareness, understanding and to encourage national-level support for appropriate protection measures. Soccer is the most popular pastime in the country and using it as a tool would assist this effort. Organizing a forest football league involving the local communities around the park and using names of indicator species that exist there would provide opportunity for disseminating information about their importance and values.

Pygmy HippopotamusA Forest Football League is therefore planned as a promotion and to expand the conservation education and awareness component of the project. The league will initially include eight teams from neighbouring villages around the park. Each team will carry a name of an indicator animal species. Billboards, posters & brochures will provide information on the species named for a participating team. Team members will learn more about the species represented in the competition. Two trophies will be awarded to the winning team and runners-up; other teams will be provided consolation prizes for participating.

Organization

The organization of the project was slightly modified to accommodate field conditions and availability of trained personnel. Furthermore, the quantity of people involved in the project increased in order to provide support for the technical teams. Another rationale is to allow the park staff to benefit from the project through training opportunities and involve the local people in protection.

The football/species promotional program would set up a committee that would include representatives from the Parks staff and communities. This program will be extended throughout the county and eventually the country. The program will provide information on the species named for a team, distribution, conservation status and other relevant information. An objective for this promotion is to select a national species for the country using criteria such as rarity, vulnerability to habitat change and disturbance.

Work-to-date

The following activities have been undertaken:

- Three transect zones have been selected Zones I, II and III. To date two of the three have been established and the third will be set up in January.
- Selection and training of technical teams completed. Training aimed at:
- Acquiring knowledge in a rapid sense of conservation-worthiness of areas suspected to be of greatest conservation values;
- Identify and select sites to establish the transects;
- To confirm the theory that certain relatively undisturbed areas could serve as controls for further bio-monitoring or rapid assessments.
- Selection and training of trackers completed.
- Purchase of vehicle and equipment completed.
- A list of indicator species (plants and animals) completed.
- Schedule for monitoring field teams and collecting field reports completed.
- Purchase of field equipment completed.
- A standard data recording form designed.
- Setting up a database for management
- Planning and preparation for the Forest Football League still in progress (equipment and materials purchased).

Plans for 2002

The following activities are planned:

- Complete Transect Zone III and deploy a technical team;
- Set up a system to determine species population structure, distribution and reproduction capacity as well as movements in terms of feeding habits and availability of food.
- Launch the Forest Football league to promote the indicator species found in the Park with emphasis on the Pygmy Hippopotamus;
- Conduct the aerial survey to verify areas under consideration for expanding the Park

Link to Project Website

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