Sapo National Park (SNP), located in the south-central portion of Liberia, encompasses 180,363 ha of lowland rainforest, including swampy areas, dryland and riparian forests, and represents one of – if not the most – intact forest ecosystem in Liberia. Notable fauna within the park include forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), Jentink’s (Cephalophus jentinki) and Zebra Duikers (C. zebra) and large primate populations, including the Diana monkey (Cercopithecus diana), red colobus (Procolobus badius), black and white Colobus (Colobus polycomos) and the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus). Also found within the park are several populations of the endangered pygmy hippopotamus (Hexaprotodon liberiensis).
Known to the indigenous Sapo people who live around the park as Nin-gben, the pygmy hippo is a very secretive animal hiding during the day in swamps or in streams, and coming out at night to feed on fallen fruits and leaves and roots of a variety of forest plants. Unlike the Sapo people’s taboos surrounding chimpanzees, which if hunted incurs a high penalty, the hippo is targeted by hunters for its meat and teeth (the teeth being used for decoration such as necklaces). However, it is said in Sapo that if a hunter kills Nin-gben, he must cut off and burry the tail. If not, anyone that the hunter meets while he carries the tail will die, as the tail is believed to be very powerful. Unfortunately this taboo doesn’t prevent pygmy hippos from being hunted.
Although the main threat to pygmy hippos in the region is habitat destruction, hunting has been the key threat to these animals in Sapo National Park where the lowland forest remains intact. During the civil war thousands of hunters and gold miners inhabited the park, and although the amount of wildlife killed is unknown, pygmy hippos were said to be targeted by hunters, along with elephants and a variety of duiker and primate species.
This blog was written by Robert Howard (Technical Advisor for Bio-monitoring and Research), based at Sapo National Park, Liberia.