Today, on Endangered Species Day, we feature another African mammal that isn’t indigenous to South Africa.
With an adult population in the wild estimated at no higher than 2,500 animals and still declining, the IUCN considers the Pygmy Hippo to be an endangered species. The biggest threats to their continued existence is hunting and the destruction of their forest habitat, with only a small proportion of the remaining population being found inside formally protected reserves and most of it being restricted to ever shrinking and increasingly isolated pockets of natural habitat. Today, wild populations are found in only four neighbouring countries in West Africa: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. An isolated population in Nigeria probably went extinct in the 1940’s. An internationally coordinated captive breeding programme for the species holds about 380 individuals in facilities across the world, including here in South Africa.
As its name suggests, the Pygmy Hippo is much smaller than the only other extant species of hippopotamus, the Common Hippo. Adult males weigh up to 280kg, females up to 190kg, and they stand only 70-90cm high at the shoulder. While they live in close association with fresh water in lowland and swamp forests, the Pygmy Hippo spends much less time in the water than its larger cousin. They feed on swamp plants, leaves, roots and fruit (grass is the main fodder for the Common Hippo, but is in short supply in the forests the Pygmy Hippo inhabits). Pygmy Hippos are solitary, nocturnal creatures and the only associations are of mating couples or a cow and her single offspring, born after a 7 month gestation. Despite their comparatively diminutive size, Pygmy Hippos are aggressive and quite dangerous when cornered or wounded.