by Breanna Draxler

Pygmy hippo at the Bristol Zoo.

Pygmy hippo at the Bristol Zoo. Photo Credit: Adrian Pingstone [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hungry Hungry Hippos was among my favorite board games growing up. My pink plastic hippo fought furiously against those of my sisters to see who could gobble up the limited number of marbles the fastest.

In the real world, too, the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) is facing limited resources, but it’s not because my sisters are hogging all the marbles. This hippo’s struggle is due to habitat destruction as a result of logging, farming and settlement in western Africa.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) listed the pygmy hippo as a “vulnerable” species in 1986, and bumped the status up to “endangered” in 2006. The last estimate, taken in the early 1990s, pegged their population at only 3,000 hippos. IUCN experts suggest that even this number may be too high. It’s hard to know how many there are, though, since the animals are only out and, about at night.

In the last three decades the nocturnal species’ range has been reduced to a few isolated pockets in western Africa. Today, scientists are using camera traps to locate pygmy populations in the wild, including one in northern Sierra Leone and another in Liberia. With this information, the scientists hope to better understand and conserve the species.

The greatest hope for the survival of the pygmy hippo may lie in captive breeding. About 300 of the animals now live in 135 zoos around the world–the vast majority of them born and raised in captivity. One such bundle of hippo joy arrived at the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn, South Africa in late March.

Almost all of the pygmy hippos in American zoos can be traced back to President Calvin Coolidge, who received a pygmy hippo named Billy in 1927 as a gift from Harvey Firestone, owner of a well-known tire company and a large rubber plantation in Liberia.