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!
No luck so far. There haven’t been many signs of hippos around the traps, but a couple of them have feeding sites nearby. The team are busy improving their radio telemetry skills ready so that if we do catch a hippo we’ll be able to track where it goes.
Unfortunately, I have to head back to the office as there’s a big pile of work waiting for me. I’m hoping to come back in about a week. I’m a little torn because whilst the important thing is that we do manage to capture a pygmy hippo, I’d really love to be there when it happens.
I’m back on the island and still no hippo. They’re getting closer to the traps though, with one area looking particularly promising – there’s footprints, dung and feeding signs very close by. We were frustratingly close with trap 9 where a hippo had stepped onto the mat, but managed to back off without falling in. Shows just how clever they are. A few cms more and it would have been in the trap for sure. Patience is obviously needed!
Unfortunately in some areas we’re actually seeing much less hippo activity. We’re not sure why, but it could be that the increased rainfall we’ve seen lately has changed they’re movements and they just not using these areas anymore.
The heavy rain has also meant that we’ve had to shut one of the traps in one of the better areas. The trap got flooded and we don’t want to risk anything getting trapped in the water.
Photo by Annika Hillers (RSPB)
We may not have seen a pygmy hippo in the flesh, but we’ve managed to capture our first ever pygmy hippo photo on one of the camera traps we have around Gola. There’s plenty of other pictures of them in and around the area, but it’s good to see that we’ve managed to capture them on one of our own cameras. Is this a good sign of things to come?
The whole team have been on Tiwai for two days now and yesterday we started opening the traps. We’ve removed the strong cover materials that, for the last month, have allowed the pygmy hippos to walk over the traps without falling in and replaced them with partly broken rattan mats on top of sticks which’ll break once they’re stood on. We’ve then covered the mats with leaves and soil so that they’re camouflaged. To make sure there’s a soft landing for the hippos, we’ve put rice bags filled with dried grass in the bottom of the pits and since they seem to have taken really well to the salt, we’ve used it to bait all the traps. We’re all good to go, so all we need now is a hippo!
Photos by Annika Hillers (RSPB)
Our team is made up of 11 people, with six of us staying in the research camp. It makes a real difference to what I’m used to here on Tiwai – normally there’s just one or two people, the camp is peaceful and I get to fall asleep to the sounds of insects and frogs and walk up to the morning calls of black and white colobus and Diana monkeys. With 10 other people here, it’s much more lively.
Capturing a pygmy hippo should in theory be relatively straight forward, but what comes next is no easy task. Once we have a hippo in a trap we need to anaesthetise it and fit it with a collar. This is seriously complicated stuff since it’s hard to anaesthetise hippos due to the fact they spend much of their life in the water and also because they’re really sensitive to physical contact. We need to make sure that should we be lucky enough to catch a hippo we all know exactly what we need to do and when to make sure there’s no risk to the hippo, so today we started to rehearse captures. I’ve got one of the best jobs – camerawoman and photographer – which means I’ll get to get up close!
The traps are being checked twice a day and every time the researchers come back to camp my heart skips a little. We’ve only got Michele and April until 2 June so we’ve got a month to catch a hippo. The clock is ticking...
2 May 2012
The team are starting to assemble in Tiwai. Michele, the vet from Palm Beach Zoo who is an expert in wildlife immobilisation (or anaesthetics to you and me) arrived yesterday after travelling from South Africa where she’s working on another project involved rhinos and lions. Today saw April arrive from Georgia and tomorrow they’ll be making their way from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, to Tiwai.
I had hoped to arrive in Tiwai ahead of them to make sure everything was ready, but unfortunately work kept me in the office so I had to push my travel plans back to today. It was gone 5pm when I set off. The drive to Tiwai usually takes about two hours and though I don’t normally like driving in the dark, the road is ok and I’ve driven it before so I thought I’d give it a go. (Plus the draw of Tiwai in the evening light was too tempting to pass up!) So I hopped in the car and started on my way.
I was just under halfway there when the storm hit. The rain was pouring down so hard that I couldn’t see where I was going too. The mud road was starting to get slippery and I was driving at a snail’s pace to make sure I didn’t run off the road. I was determined to keep going, but a little while later I found the road blocked by a fallen tree. It was getting dark, the nearest village was too far away to walk to and a man who happened to be walking by confirmed my fears that the road wouldn’t be cleared until morning. There was nothing else for it – I was going to have to turn around, head home and try again in the morning.
So I set off for the second time and had been driving for 30 minutes when – yes, you’ve guessed it – another tree in the road. I was trapped between two fallen trees – great! Luckily I’d just driven passed a small village so I went back and asked for help. Despite the weather, four young men offered to help and they managed to shift the tree out of the road rather quickly and I was on my way again. At least I was until I came across the third fallen tree 5 minutes later and unfortunately for me, this one was a whopper. Just as I contemplated pitching my tent at the side of the road, the villagers came up with the idea of using sticks and planks to build a “bridge” over the ditch at the side of the road to get me around the tree. So 10 minutes later I found myself trying to manoeuvre my car over some planks that weren’t very side and that I couldn’t actually see from inside the car, whilst having to rely on directions from my rescuers to make sure I didn’t end up in the ditch. (Easier said than done when there’s now 10 people shouting different instructions at you!)
Luckily I managed to make it to the other side and six hours after setting off for Tiwai, I was back where I started. I’ll try again tomorrow and hopefully the journey won’t be quite so complicated!
Success! We now have 20 finished traps. I may be biased, but I’m sure these are the most beautiful pitfall traps I’ve ever seen. I’m really proud of the team – it was hard work, but we got there in the end.
We’ve covered the traps in strong material so that the hippos can used to walking on the trails again and over the traps before we move into the capture phase of the project. In order to attract the hippos, we’ve put some salt on part of the traps. Other mammals seem to like salt when it’s been used in previous trials so we thought we’d try it out on the hippos.
Over the next month, Alusine and Kenewa will check the traps for signs of pygmy hippo activity in the morning and late afternoon. I have to return to Kenema and my normal work in Gola, but the team here in Tiwai will keep me posted. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to see how things are getting on.
I’m back on Tiwai and so far, so good. The team have been finding hippo signs on and around the traps, with four of the traps looking particularly popular. The salt seems to be working a treat!
Pygmy hippo footprint by Annika Hillers (RSPB)
The team have even found a couple of new areas that look really promising, so they’ve dug three more traps. Luckily for them, there’s been a lot of rain over the last couple of weeks so the traps were much easier to dig.
I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ve got a really good feeling. We know the hippos are there and they’re coming to the traps, so surely we’ve got a good chance of catching one. Right?