Building Liberia’s capacity for effective conservation of the pygmy hippopotamus
- By Sarah Pocock, Communications Officer, Fauna & Flora International
Widely recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot and containing the largest remaining intact Upper Guinean Rainforest Ecosystem – approximately 42%, Liberia's forests are home to many species occurring nowhere else on Earth and provide a stronghold for several others that are almost extinct outside the country, including the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis).
Endemic to the forests of West Africa, the pygmy hippo is now restricted to the Upper Guinean rainforests spanning Côte D’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Historically understudied, there is still much to learn about the pygmy hippo and real pressure to do so – habitat loss and hunting have resulted in their numbers drastically falling to approximately 2,000. Although listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, the latest assessment, conducted in 2015, highlighted a high rate of forest loss and an increasing hunting intensity (Ransom et al., 2015), so it is likely that the species would be listed as Critically Endngered if up-to-date data were available.
Building upon 20 years of working in Liberia, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) began a CEPF-funded project to strengthen Liberia’s conservation capacity and support pygmy hippo conservation in 2017. Over three years, the team aims to implement a nation-wide survey to fill information gaps, address threats, increase awareness and establish effective management of critical habitats of the pygmy hippo to ensure its protection and recovery in Liberia and across its range. Alongside addressing the urgent need for accurate species distribution information and a lack of capacity at the national scale, the team also seeks to build regional networks to collect and analyse data and implement the Regional Conservation Strategy and National Action Plan for the pygmy hippo. So far, a range of workshops and field courses have been delivered: from statistics to ecological sampling and tools for grographical mapping such as Geographic Information System to Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tool, university students, interns and technical staff from government and partner organisations have benefited from the training. “My experience as an intern at FFI has been a wholesome learning experience. From exposure to key topics in ecology and protected area management to the development of research and communication skills, I am more confident of my ability in being able to support biodiversity conservation effectively”, says Francis Cooper, an FFI intern.
Development of a pygmy hippo data collection protocol offered opportunities to collaborate and build networks. An initial draft of the new data collection tool was produced in 2019, which was a significant step towards strengthening accurate data collection of this elusive species across its range countries. Complimentary camera trapping and eDNA sampling have started and will provide in-depth distribution and genetic information to fill current knowledge gaps.
Counting the Gains
The pygmy hippo’s shy and secretive nature had resulted in low public awareness about the species and the threats it faces. To build public support for pygmy hippo conservation, a series of awareness-raising activities were rolled out to engage a range of audiences. The pygmy hippo has now featured on national radio and is celebrated in murals on display at a school and international airport and the species is well on its way to becoming a flagship for Liberia.
“We’re so excited to see collaboration across organisations and countries in aid of pygmy hippo conservation,” says Dr Mary Molokwu-Odozi, Country Manager at FFI in Liberia. “By investing in the national capacity, we hope that this work continues long into the future and that the pygmy hippo can once again thrive across the Upper Guinean Forest landscape.”
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) began working in Liberia in 1997 and we played a crucial role, together with our partners, in re-establishing operations in the country’s oldest protected area – Sapo National Park – after years of civil conflict. Since then, we have expanded our programme to cover protected area management, species-specific conservation, valuing Liberia’s forests for carbon storage and supporting communities to engage in conservation. Running through all our work has been an ongoing commitment to support Liberia’s up-and-coming conservationists by helping to build conservation capacity at a national level – something that has been limited due to a lack of practical and academic training opportunities.