Guest blogger: Heather G
I loved reading Annika’s pygmy hippo diary from Gola last week. From the outset I was hooked. It had everything that’s needed for a great story.
First, there’s the setting. It really is another world, one of adventure and wonder (and somewhere I’d like to go). I’ve been lucky enough to visit tropical forests elsewhere, and the sounds of a rainforest are like no other. Many sounds are so different from more familiar wildlife you can’t be sure if they come from mammals, birds, insects or something else. It’s mysterious and mesmerising.
Then there’s the main characters of the story – lovable, undeniably cute pygmy hippos. I’m seeing them as an old fashioned heroine. Vulnerable and in need of rescue, but sassy - they certainly kept everyone on their toes!
All good stories have drama and suspense. Time is running out for our heroine. Would they catch a hippo? Would they even see one? And a whiff of danger as Annika was trying to get back to the camp, with a storm lashing the windscreen, wheels slipping in the mud, and trees falling across the road.
And we’re left on a cliff hanger, as this trip did not result in successfully catching a hippo. The scene is set for a sequel.
But wait, haven’t I forgotten something? What about the hero? Every good story needs a hero. That’s where you all come in. We couldn’t do this work without your support.
To give this story a truly happy ending, we need to secure a future for all pygmy hippos and. You can help us by putting plenty of cash in the ‘pyggy’ bank for rainforest conservation by taking part in a Together For Trees bucket collection on Friday 21 or Saturday 22 September. It only takes a few hours, and all you need is a big smile. You can sign up to take part at a Tesco store near you here. Please register by 14 September to make sure you book your bucket.
If you can’t take part, but you’re shopping at Tesco during the collection weekend, take some change to drop in the bucket, or you can donate online here.
Last night was our last night all together so we threw a little party for the team, though I wasn’t really in the party mood and have to admit to shedding a tear or two. We’ve come so close so many times, but still haven’t managed to catch a pygmy hippo.
And what would our last night be without another close call? This morning we checked one of the traps that had shown lots of signs of hippo activity early on and it was obvious that a hippo had been trying to reach the salt we’d put out. But again, it was too smart for us and had managed to back off just at the last minute.
Well that’s it. Our month is up and April and Michele have left the island and are flying home tomorrow. Even if they had been able to stay longer, the heavy rain we’ve had over the last few days has flooded many of the traps so we wouldn’t have been able to use them.
We’ll stay on the island for another day to make sure all the traps are closed and make sure they’re safe until we can work out if we can come back. The team will keep checking the traps and the area for signs of hippo activity so that we’re ready, just in case.
Even though we didn’t manage to catch a hippo it’s been a great learning experience and if we get the chance to try again we’ll be in a much better position. We managed to collar three guineafowl in the end (two crested and one white breasted) so the team will keep improving their radio telemetry skills by tracking them and collecting some really useful data.
Photo by April Conway (UGA)
The bad weather has definitely been a problem for us. Some of the pygmy hippos seemed to have changed their movement patterns and that’s why the more popular traps at the beginning of the month saw less activity later on.
Hopefully we’ll get a second chance to catch a pygmy hippo and Abdulai and I will finally get to realise our dream.
I’m starting to think that I’m just not meant to see a pygmy hippo in the wild. I came back to Kenema today, promising some new colleagues a lift back with me as they had spent the night on the island. When I arrived at the campsite where they’ve been staying on the island late in the morning, I could tell from their faces that something wasn’t quite right. One of the group, Kelly, had gone for a short walk and just a few minutes away from the camp had bumped into a couple of pygmy hippos! She’d heard them before she saw them and as she went round a corner, ever so slowly, there they were, resting on the forest floor. It took them a couple of minutes to realise she was there – just enough time for her to take some photos. She’s so lucky! We’ve been here for weeks and still haven’t had any luck.
Photo by Kelly Witkowski. She was lucky enough to have time to take this brilliant photo before the hippos realised she was there.
You can practically feel the frustration and desperation that’s descended over the camp. We had another close call this morning. Whilst checking his traps this morning, Alusine spotted a pygmy hippo taking a bath in the river, close to two of our traps. Having seen Alusine, the hippo ran off in the direction of the traps, but managed to avoid them. It stayed in the area so Michele headed out with her dart gun. Unfortunately, the undergrowth got too thick before she could get a clear shot.
Hopefully the hippo will stick around and we’ll get another chance.
Another close call over the weekend, but still no pygmy hippo. I wish they could understand it’s for their own good! It’s become worryingly quiet over the last couple of days and frustration levels amongst the team are growing. What are we doing wrong? It started so well, but we still haven’t managed to catch one and there’s been no fresh signs at all in the last day or so. It’s cutting it close to the wire, but there’s still 10 days left and there’s still time.
It’s not just us who are disappointed – it’s the local community members too. They’ve started to come up with their own theories about what’s going wrong. They believe that other forces should help so they’ve started with their traditional rituals to see if that works. There’s even medicine men from different villages competing to see who can help us catch a hippo first. We’ve already tried scattering magic powder in and on top of the traps, but nothing seems to be helping.
On a positive note, we’re starting to look at other work we might be able to do whilst we’re waiting for the hippos. We’re starting to set some white-breasted guineafowl traps so we can track them using radio telemetry. We’ve got two former hunters on the team so we’ve got a good chance of catching some guineafowl even if we can’t catch a hippo!
Things are not looking good. We’re fast running out of time and I haven’t even managed to see a pygmy hippo let alone caught one. We’re trying to come up with different ways of catching a hippo since the traps don’t seem to be working. We don’t think it’s the traps themselves, but the fact the hippos haven’t even been in the area for the last couple of days.
We’ve come up with the possibility of darting a hippo, though we’ll have to actually see one to manage that. This isn’t the ideal solution because there’s the danger that the hippo could run into the river after it’s been darted, then go under due to the anaesthesia and drown so we’re going to have to be really careful.
The other problem is that it’s rather tricky to dart a hippo from 10m away through thick undergrowth. Luckily, Michele has proven herself to be a brilliant markswoman. She could definitely be an FBI agent or something similar if she wasn’t a vet.
We’ve also set up some camera traps around the old mining pit to see whether the hippos are still using it. This could provide the perfect spot for darting because we could block the trails back to the river to stop the hippo making it to the water before the anaesthesia takes effect.
So despite our bad luck so far, there’s still hope. And we’ve managed to catch our first guineafowl – a crested one, not a white-breasted as we’d hoped, but it’ll still give us chance to work on our radio telemetry skills and provide us with some useful data.
Quite an exciting day today. Ok so we didn’t actually catch a hippo, but we’re getting closer!
Kenewa heard hippo noises whilst out checking his traps this morning. The locals think it’s a pregnant female looking for somewhere to give birth, but Michele thinks it’s more likely to be a female that’s come into heat and is looking for a mate.
This could have been our chance to see a pygmy hippo so we jumped in the boat and headed up river to check things out. We could hear noises coming from a dense piece of undergrowth close to the water. We sat quietly in the boat, hoping to catch sight of the hippo that was a mere 100m away. We hoped that if we didn’t see her, she might end up in one of the traps that were close by, but sadly we were disappointed on both counts. The noises got quieter and quieter and then silence.
We were so close! But back to camp we headed, with empty hands and empty traps.
We’ve got ourselves one clever hippo here. She’s still in the same area, but has managed to avoid the traps so far.
We got our hopes up again this morning when Kenewa found the cover material missing from one of this traps. Could this be it? Had we finally caught a pygmy hippo? Sadly not. Heavy rainfall the night before had soaked the cover material and caused it to slip into the trap.
Getting over our disappointment quickly we left the camp and headed for the trap as it needed to be repaired quickly. Whilst we were working on the trap, Kenewa and Bobor went to suss out an old mining pit that’s used by pygmy hippos as a resting place. Suddenly there was a huge kafuffle and we heard something running through the undergrowth and then splashing into the river. It turns out a hippo had been resting in the mining pit, had been surprised by Kenewa and Bobor and made quick its escape. If only it had run our way!
We fixed the trap up and carefully blocked off some of the hippo trails leading away from the pit towards the water in an attempt to guide the hippos in the trap’s direction.
The hippo encounters are getting closer so surely it can’t be long before a hippo ends up in one of our traps. We have two weeks left. The clock is ticking!