Pygmy hippos are smaller cousins of the hippopotamus that are native to West Africa. Of the 2,000 estimated pygmy hippos remaining in the wild, most are thought to be in Liberia, with smaller numbers in of Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
The pygmy hippo is only half as tall as the hippopotamus and weighs less than 1/4 of a full sized hippopotamus. Adult pygmy hippos reach 70-80 cm in height and are believed to have diverged from the common hippo over 10 million years ago. Pygmy hippos are nocturnal and reclusive by nature so, coupled with the vastly declined numbers over the last few decades, little is known about their behaviours in the wild. Breeding programmes in captivity have been successful in zoos around the world, and it is from these pygmy hippos that most research has been come.
Pygmy hippos are primarily nocturnal, secretive and relatively solitary. They live either singly or in pairs, with males wandering between patches inhabited by solitary females. Unlike many other wild animals, they are not aggressive when they meet, tending to ignore each other instead. However, they can be highly territorial when defending their enclosure. As a result of their behavioural traits, less is known about their lifestyle than their larger cousin. In order to mark paths through the rainforest, they spread muck while wagging their tails when defecating.
A newborn pygmy hippo weighs just ten to 14 pounds (4.5 to 6.4 kg). Calves then remain with the mother until weaning, hiding near the water as the mother leaves to forage for food. Weaning occurs between six and eight months of age. Accurate lifespan is not known, but it is believed that they live between 30-50 years old.
Most of their time is spent in swamps and near rivers, in order to keep their skin wet and feed on leafy surrounding vegetation during later in the day and at night. They mainly eat grasses, leaves, shoots and fallen fruits.
Various folklore tales exist about pygmy hippos in West Africa. The most popular tale claims that a pygmy hippo carries a diamond in its mouth at night, to light a pathway through the forest. While it is hidden during the day, should a hunter capture a pygmy hippo, they also gain a diamond. Other tales include the belief that pygmy hippos will spray out field fires and eat the remaining charcoal dust, and even that they are bulletproof as a result of their foam-like glandular secretions.
Pygmy hippos have been classified an endangered species by the Zoological Society of London. It has been estimated that there are around 2,000 pygmy hippos left in the wild, with numbers declining as their habitat is destroyed and they continue to be hunted for bushmeat. The majority of remaining pygmy hippos are believed to be in Liberia, with some possibly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast (all countries with remaining Upper Guinean Forest). A subspecies existed in Nigeria, but this is now believed to be extinct as there have been no sightings for decades.
Pygmy hippos are threatened by a variety of factors which continue to contribute to dwindling pygmy hippo numbers. Loss of habitat, through deforestation, remains the main menaces. During the civil war, large-scale logging for timber export was used as a political and financial pawn, and it is only in the last decade that the industry has been regulated as a result of political stability. Illegal mining, poaching and subsistence farming have lead to fragmentation of the forest, making wildlife habitat more accessible to human predators. Despite being illegal in Liberia and a governmental campaign aimed at raising awareness of its high conservation cost, the bushmeat trade continues to thrive in major towns throughout the country.
Food insecurity as a result of agricultural constraints, lack of infrastructure and poor water facilities have resulted in forest resources being stripped as people try to meet the food needs of their families. Pygmy hippo meat is more palatable than bigger hippos, resulting in continued hunting despite legal measures to prevent it.