The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) is one of the important High Conservation Value species of the Gola Forests in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Pygmy hippos are Endangered and occur in only four countries in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea). They are found in forested areas, which now are very much fragmented and continue to be under immense anthropogenic pressure linked to agriculture, logging and mining. There is no reliable estimate for the remaining pygmy hippo population in the wild, but it is believed to range from 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. Pygmy hippos are very elusive and solitary animals. Knowledge about their distribution and ecology is scarce, and they are threatened through habitat destruction and hunting for bushmeat.
The Greater Gola Landscape in Sierra Leone and Liberia is one of the last remaining natural habitats for pygmy hippos and therefore very important for their survival. Since 2010, various research and sensitisation activities in the Gola Forests focused on pygmy hippos. Research included community questionnaires, surveys along rivers and streams, camera trapping and transect walks. In a separate project we also tried to capture and radio collar pygmy hippos together with a team from Tiwai Island. Awareness raising events were for example meetings and road shows with local communities and activities with school children. We also produced education materials, such as posters, bumper stickers, species fact sheets and T-Shirts.
Our research results showed that in the Greater Gola Landscape, pygmy hippos mainly occur along larger rivers in the community forest area. They therefore need strong support from communities in order to avoid land-use and human-wildlife conflicts, further habitat destruction and poaching. Community-based conservation activities are the way forward to guarantee the survival of pygmy hippos in this region.
The recommendation from our research findings was already put into practice. The Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) piloted a “Community Youth Conservation Volunteer programme”, which targets unemployed youth in forest edge communities and actively involves them in the conservation of threatened species. Two groups of volunteers were trained at the Gola Rainforest Conservation Centre (GRCC) in January and March 2016. One group focuses on pygmy hippos, the other group focuses on the white-necked Picathartes, another species that depends strongly on habitats in community forests areas. We hope this programme will help to raise more awareness and support for pygmy hippos among local communities. We also administer questionnaires at various stages of the project in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme.