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.


Review: Blackfish

Image from:

Rating: 3.5/4.0 star

This documentary is a must-see for anyone, especially those interested in animal welfare. It follows the story of Tilikum, an orca, killer whale or blackfish, whichever name you prefer.

Tilikum, or Tilly was captured from the wild and we are shown what has happened to him since then, being shunted around various marine mammal parks. In one park the animals were kept in a tiny pen, here there was no chance to get away from one another and aggression built up, and as such Tilly was often ‘raked’. (Raking is the process whereby orca whales scratch each other with their teeth to assert dominance; Tilly was bottom of the social hierarchy.) The general consensus is that over the years being kept in unnatural proximity to other whales has made Tilly psychotic.

Orcas are highly social animals, often travelling in groups of 40-50 individuals, all of which are related. What SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific have done is taken a few of these individuals out of the wild, and placed them with other orcas they have no relation to. It’s not natural and no wonder aggression occurs.

Below are some orca facts that the film touches on:

  • Average Lifespan: Females: 50 years in the wild, 20-30 years in captivity ; Males: 50-60 years in the wild, 30 years in captivity (sometimes wild orcas have lived up to 80 years old)
  • Dorsal fin collapse isn’t common in the wild. There are several theories to it’s cause, but it may be due to swimming in small circles in captivity, due to reduced space.
  • There have been no reported fatal attacks on humans in the wild.

It should also be pointed out that orcas come from the same family as dolphins, an example of another mammal which should not be kept in captivity, but still is. There is a heart rending moment when one of the female orcas can be seen and heard screaming when her calf is taken away from her.

What I find shocking is that SeaWorld managed to hide many of the attacks on trainers as ‘incidents’ and often other trainers had no idea anything had happened. Hiding 70 human injuries really isn’t something to be proud of, and any trust you may have had in SeaWorld is certainly gone by this point.

I just feel sorry that Tilikum has ended up killing three people, it’s not his fault and it’s not the trainers fault. Imagine being kept in only a few rooms of a house, knowing there is a whole world outside where you once could go. The trainers themselves have mostly been brainwashed into thinking that what they do is actually helping the animals. The moment in the film when you hear during an orca show ‘The whales aren’t doing this because they have to, they are doing it because they want to’ set my teeth on edge. No, that’s a big fat lie, the orcas just do it because if they don’t, you won’t give them any fish.

SeaWorld’s official response to this documentary did make me laugh. It says the film ‘exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues’. I highly doubt that as they feature in the documentary, if they didn’t want to then they wouldn’t be in it. The family clearly think the world should know and rightly so. The statement then continues to try and make us look at the good points of SeaWorld, as it does carry out research as well as rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals. However, a zoological institution should know better than to continue to keep orcas in captivity. If they could just accept what they are doing is wrong, and release them back into the wild, then you could almost forgive them. Let’s hope no more human lives have to be lost before they take action.

The problem I have with this documentary is that it lacks the scientific background behind why Tilly, and other whales, shouldn’t be kept in captivity. Whales, and dolphins rely on echolocation and have brilliant hearing, so the noise of crowds and screaming is like daily torture. Consequently they are often depressed, and can even commit suicide (yes, they are conscious breathers).

However, at the very least this documentary should make you want to boycott SeaWorld (if you hadn’t already) and Loro Parque, in fact all marine mammal parks. If you want to see orcas or dolphins see them in the wild, it’s their natural environment. They are too intelligent to be cooped up, if we can fight for free range eggs, then we sure can fight for the freedom of marine mammals. I’d highly recommend watching The Cove, the Blackfish equivalent for dolphins, which provides a greater scientific understanding as to why we should leave marine mammals be.

Here’s a petition for the release of Tilikum into a seapen, as he is too damaged and old to be set free in the wild:


Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 3


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble. Image from: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: four star

This was the last of three episodes set in the stunning Luangwa Valley in Zambia. The last two episodes have slowly introduced more animals and their lives and this episode is mostly spent catching up with the stories so far.

After a short shower in last weeks episode the weather is dry and warm again. Without enough rain the drought has proved too much for some of the hippos, providing food for other animals, including red-billed oxpeckers. We see both the wild dogs and the lions down on the salt pans. With the small rain shower, many species have given birth, including the impala. The wild dogs decide to go hunting and a pup even manages to catch and impala fawn. The lions, on the other hand, have decided to hunt buffalo, catching enough to feed them for a couple of days. The agility and power of lions and wild dogs still surprises me.

Simon heads out to try and find some leopards one last time, before dawn has even broken. Leopards are highly elusive animals so it can take a long time to find them, especially as they are so well camouflaged. Through reading the behaviour of other animals in the bush he works out a leopard must be nearby. He stops by a fig tree, a favourite of leopards as they love to dangle off the horizontal branches, and notices that the helmeted guinea fowl are on edge. Over the edge of a mound comes bounding  a leopard cub, honing his hunting skills on the guinea fowl. Then appears his mother, this is not only a leopard, as Simon says, but ‘the’ leopard family from an earlier episode. I genuinely can’t believe their luck. 

Towards the end of the episode the clouds are building once again, then a wall of sand comes up the river, with torrential rain straight behind it. We see how heavy the rain is falling, and then in the aftermath Kate shows that several of the crews tents have been blown down. This is the typical African storm I know; heavy rain and winds. Unfortunately the rain did not last very long, however there are still green shoots to be found springing up. The elephants have moved away towards where the rain was headed in search of fresh growth. The young elephant with a shortened trunk is spotted, much to my delight. I am glad it has survived the drought.

A female in the salt pan pride of lions has been seen wondering alone, so they decide to follow her. This provides a wonderful ending to the series, when we discover she has had two cubs. They are just so tiny and adorable. We are lucky to have seen them, as they were hiding in the bush. It goes to show that learning a bit about animal behaviour can lead you to great finds like this.

Finally I got to watch the red button extras, which by the way you can catch on iplayer. We get a glimpse into the lives of hyenas. The Lion King hasn’t really done them any favours and they are a fascinating animal. Similarly vultures are talked about, they may not look pretty but they are essential to avoid disease spreading as they eat animal carcasses that may have infected tissue. The problem of snaring is also highlighted, as the bushmeat trade is a very real problem to the future of animals. The crocodile eggs still haven’t hatched, and it looks like the real rains are on their way. They need to have more than normal to compensate for the lack of rain last year. It could just be that they are seeing the impacts of climate change, but let’s hope not.

Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 2


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble
Image: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: Four star

This was the second episode in a three-part series about the Luangwa Valley before the rains arrive, and it was packed with rare sightings and information about the species seen.

Sadly we learn that the baby elephant that was seen last week, died a few days later. They suspect the mother simply didn’t have enough milk to give the baby, given that food is low in the dry season. The sight of the mother sniffing the air around the calf, and waiting to see if it was going to get up was touching.

We learn that a big lion pride is moving closer to the river for food and drink, getting closer to the smaller resident pride we were introduced to last week. This could spell trouble for the smaller pride, as if they encounter the larger pride, their cubs may be killed.

They really seem to be getting lucky this series, as one of the filming crew came across some African wild dogs. These are one of the most majestic animals in Africa in my opinion. They are also called painted dogs, and are listed as endangered with an estimated population of between 3000 and 5000 individuals. The group they come across had quite a few pups, and it was lovely to see them doing so well.

The other focus of the programme was on crocodiles which were amassing in the river due to the high volume of prey and dead hippo carcasses. It was interesting to see hippos trying to defend the dead carcass of one of their number. They had an expert on who explained that crocodiles sit on guard above their eggs once they had laid them. I had no idea they would do something like that.

Towards the end of the episode the rains have arrived in part of the area they are filming in, but are yet to reach the main river. Kate Humble is speaking and you can hear a thunder storm in the background. Unfortunately, I turned over for Downton Abbey again so missed the red button extras. However, next week I should be able to watch them.  

Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 1


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble Image: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: Four star

I love Africa so I have been anticipating the start of this three-part series, and it certainly exceeded my expectations. The premise is that over three episodes, we see all the action in and around the Luangwa River in Zambia. Herbivores are struggling to find enough food and water to survive and consequently carnivores are thriving, preying on those that are weakened. Technology advances mean that they are using 70 odd cameras to cover the action, including camera traps, and remote control cameras which can be moved up, down, left and right. 

Kate Humble points out at one point an elephant which has lost the bottom half of its trunk. It’s interesting to see how it has adapted to its disability, and I just hope it survives. I wish these wildlife programmes wouldn’t make you so attached to the animals they follow, but then I guess that’s part of their magic. Until watching the programme last night I hadn’t really thought about hippos actually getting stuck pools as they dry up. It will be interesting to see how they cope as the water keeps drying up. Particular highlights of last night had to be the lion cubs, because they are so cute, and finding the leopard and her cub. I know just how tricky it is to find a leopard, and it must have taken some luck to find them. Lovely to see them doing so well, and Simon King bothering to explaining their behaviour. There’s nothing better than an educational nature programme.

However, I did feel insulted when the voiceover person introduced the programme warning of ‘lion and buffalo kill’ scenes. For one, it’s nature and it shouldn’t really shock us that an animal has to kill to survive. Secondly, all you see is a few lions with bloodied faces and a buffalo lying dead on its side. Not really anything traumatising at all.

Unfortunately I can’t comment on the red button extras, as I turned over for Dowton Abbey, which is a real shame, but with Simon King and Kate Humble at the helm I am sure it was good. Needless to say I am excited for the next dose of action on Sunday at 8pm.