Review: Natural World: The Pygmy Hippo

Pygmy hippo. Image from:

Rating: four star

I always really enjoy the Natural World series from the BBC, and this brilliant programme on pygmy hippos was no exception. During the episode we follow the many exploits of Australian ecologist, Wei-Yeen Yap who is trying to research the elusive pygmy hippo.

Pygmy hippos are, as their name suggests, small and also nocturnal just to make the search harder! They live in a small area of West Africa, and the research Wei is doing takes part in the Tai National Park, in the Côte d’Ivoire. The park faces many pressures including illegal logging and poaching. Bush meat can often be a vital source of protein, and during the programme they visit a market on the border where many different kinds of animals are for sale, including mangabeys. Although they find no pygmy hippos for sale, they meet someone who confirms people do still hunt them. Where forest isn’t protected cocoa plantations are cropping up, so make sure next time you buy chocolate that it is Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified. This will help give something back to the community and hopefully protect these, and many other, beautiful animals.

To start with Wei and fellow researchers are seen surveying the park for signs of hippos. They set up camera traps in areas where they find tracks and it isn’t long before they are rewarded with footage of the animal they came to look for. It is then that we learn of the next stage of their plan. They want to capture and tag a pygmy hippo. The team builds several traps along the tracks they know to be frequented by the hippos thanks to the camera trap video footage. To start with they don’t set the traps to shut, in the hope that the hippos familiarise to walking through them. Unfortunately, just as the first veterinary trapping team is due to arrive Wei falls ill. She ends up having to go to hospital where it is confirmed she has malaria and a stomach bug. This just goes to highlight the risk that researchers go to work in these conditions. You can take anti-malarials, but still catch this horrible disease. Luckily after a few days she is back and the trapping starts in earnest. They record pygmy hippos going into the entrance of the traps, but not all the way in. The problem is soon spotted, other animals are eating the bait before the hippos arrive, so there is no incentive for them to enter.

The trapping team has to leave, so Wei gets back into researching what else she can. She discovers a hippo burrow that extends back well under the bank, and even has an air pocket. There are even marks on the walls that look like they could have been made by the hippos’ ‘tusks’. If this is true it is definitely new to science. It is great to this being uncovered right in front of your eyes. I believe she uses a GoPro on a stick to find this out, and just shows even the best research involves improvised equipment. She also reanalyses some footage from the traps and finds she has just caught the edge of a hippo spraying poo and urine with its tail. This is believed to be how they mark the edge of their territories and communicate. Wei soon finds plenty of poo to analyse back at the lab which should hopefully reveal information about their diet.

The team finding evidence of pygmy hippos. Image from:

Unfortunately a second trapping team come and go, but still they don’t have any luck trapping and tagging a hippo. However, by the end of the programme the team have recorded three different hippos on their camera trap footage. One male and female look like they are coming to and from the same den, which would be an interesting development because until now it was thought that pygmy hippos lead a solitary life apart from mating. Wei even thinks that one of the males is one previously recorded in 2010, showing it had survived in the forest for 3 years. With the current pressures on the forest, it would be great to think that it is the same male.

Wei-Yeen Yap at Marwell. Image from:

I really did enjoy ‘Natural World: The Pygmy Hippo: A Very Secret Life’ because we just don’t know much about it. In fact at the beginning of the programme Wei visits Marwell Wildlife Park to show us up close what the pygmy hippo looks like, as you are very unlikely to meet it in real life in the wild. I do hope that Wei eventually manages to tag a pygmy hippo, because it would provide some fascinating insights, such as where do they go, and how far do they travel. If you still haven’t watched it, it’s available here until the 17th May.