by James Gbeaduh and Clara Cassell
The local Kwa people call it the Neigben, based on their word for water Nei and cow Gben. This rare and nocturnal mammal, however, is known to scientists as a Pygmy Hippopotamus or pygmy hippo. As you may have guessed from its name, the pygmy hippo is related to the Hippopotamus, being the only other living member of the family Hippopotamidae. Pygmy hippos once ranged all over the wet lowland primary forests of the Upper Guinea Forest hotspot, but it is currently found only in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire. The Sapo National Park is one such protected area, and the pygmy hippo is distinguished from other inhabitants of Sapo because it is listed as Endangered by the IUCN and because it is so rarely seen.
Pygmy hippo populations are declining, and continue to do so in response to pressures from humans in the form of hunting, farming, habitat destruction (fragmentation, logging) and settlement. Its range continues to shrink. Estimates of the pygmy hippo populations may be suspect, however, because it is very reclusive and therefore difficult to study. Little is known about its ecology in the wild, and in the Sapo National Park, where it is often hunted illegally, the animal is even more cautious. This scarcity has led many to question whether the pygmy hippo still exists in the Sapo National Park.
The study in 2015 answered this question anew by providing visual evidence of the animal’s existence. Twenty-four cameras were set up in the park, set close to the ground to ensure capture of the pygmy hippo, which stands below 3 feet at its highest point. The camera traps were set in a standard gps grid 2km away from each other in places where the first footage of pygmy hippos was captured in 2011. Sixty-two transects were surveyed, but no pygmy hippos were seen though pygmy hippo signs were seen on 11 of these transects. Four of the cameras captured images of pygmy hippos, with a total of 178 photos captured. The camera traps and transect-walks show that pygmy hippo populations are concentrated in the south-western part of Sapo. Many signs of human activities were also noted, especially signs of hunting such as gun shells and boot tracks.
This study shows that the Pygmy Hippopotamus remains in the Sapo National Park, but too, that they are still suspect to the threats posed by anthropogenic activities, most prominently hunting, but also logging and mining. Law enforcement needs to be strengthened in the south-west, as well as the other parts of Sapo National Park in order to ensure the security of the Pygmy Hippos, in one of the last areas where it exists in the wild. Continued camera trapping can be used to monitor the population of this rather reclusive mammal.