The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) is one of the most important High Conservation Value species of the Gola Forests in Sierra Leone and Liberia and a flagship species for these parks. Pygmy hippos are Endangered on the IUCN Red List 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 pressure linked to human activities such as 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. Thanks to generous funding from Zoo Basel the research team of GRNP has been able to undertake various research and sensitisation activities focused on pygmy hippos. Research included community questionnaires, surveys along rivers and streams, camera trapping and transect walks. 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. Funded by Zoo Basel 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. This programme ran in 2016 and 2017 and has helped to raise awareness and support for pygmy hippos among local communities and build a team of community conservationists ready to do what it takes to protect the pygmy hippos across key habitats outside of conventionally protected area.