When people think of hippos they tend to think of the big kind, frequently seen patrolling African rivers in natural history programmes on the TV(or perhaps the brightly coloured, rather hungry plastic variety from a well known children’s game?). What about the little guy? Who thinks about the pygmy hippo?
Unlike their larger and better known cousins, the common hippo, pygmy hippos are elusive beasties. Very little is known about them and that makes protecting them in the wild really difficult. We need to know more about where they go, what they do, and how they live in order to protect them. And to find out more, first we need to catch one and that’s what we’ve been trying to do over the last few months
So how do you catch a pygmy hippo? You need a plan – a cunning plan – a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a fox.
To start off with you need to find a pygmy hippo, which is easier said than done. Not only are there less than 3,000 individuals left in the world, but the fact they’re rather elusive beasts, preferring the solitary life and spending most of their time in swampy areas and streams, makes the chances even smaller. Luckily for us, one of the largest remaining populations happens to be in south-east Sierra Leone, which just happens to be the location of Gola Rainforest!
In the middle of the Moa River, near to Gola, sits Tiwai Island. Almost twice the size of Gibraltar, this island has a good number of hippos. But even then, you can’t guarantee seeing one. I’ve been working in Sierra Leone and its neighbouring countries for ten years, with my first trip to Tiwai in 2005, and I’m yet to see one of these elusive beasts in the flesh. My colleague Abdulai has been looking for even longer, spending years on Tiwai and seeing only signs of their existence. (Fingers crossed working with us on this project will mean he finally gets to see one!)
So once you know where to look, you need to find yourself a team of experts who are hoping to catch a pygmy hippo too. Please step forward Prof John Carroll and April Conway from the University of Georgia. John and April are experts in radio tracking, have been working on Tiwai Island since 2008, and April is only the second researcher ever to have successfully captured a wild pygmy hippo back in 2010. Together with the Sierra Leonean team on the ground based, April and Dr Michele Miller, a vet from Palm Beach Zoo, we have ourselves a crack pygmy hippo catching team.
But how to actually go about catching one? Have you read Winnie the Pooh? Do you remember when they try to catch a heffalump? Well it’s just like that! Ok it’s slightly more scientific than that, but you get the general idea.
Over the last few months, a team on Tiwai has been scouring Tiwai and the surrounding islands looking for signs of hippos. They’ve located at least twenty sites where there seems to be a high amount of hippo activity (hippo trails, footprints, feeding sites and, of course, poo), hopefully giving us the best chance of success. At each of these sites, we’re going to dig pitfall traps, which are basically what they sound like – pits that we hope the hippos will fall into. But don’t worry, the traps are carefully designed so they’re shallow enough to stop the hippo getting hurt as it falls inside, but deep enough to mean the hippo can’t get out without our help.
All sounds pretty straight forward right? Well let’s find out...