Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 33 – The Pygmy Hippopotamus


A baby Pygmy hippopotamus takes a bath in an enclosure at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. The baby hippo was born on June 22 at the zoo. (AFP)

Photo: Getty Images

Description
These adorable little hippopotami are so elusive there are few images of them in the wild.  They are both shy and nocturnal, and consequently photographs are scarce.  The heart-melting little man above was born on June 22nd,  2011 in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo.

Pygmy hippopotami are solitary creatures who wallow in mud or water for most of the day until they emerge at night to feed.  When doing so, they have the most unusual trait of using their lips instead of their teeth to grind food.  They are also strong swimmers, with specially adapted valves to close their ears and nostrils when underwater.  And, contrary to belief,  calves don’t instinctively know how to swim.  They require a few lessons from mother first.

Once fully grown,  pygmy hippopotami can reach up to five and a half feet in length and thirty-nine inches in height,  and weigh up to six hundred pounds.  With wide heads,  stout legs and round bodies,  these are really solid little individuals.  Unlike the African hippo, they do not have eyes on the top of their heads.

Nature,  forever compensating as it does,  has afforded the pygmy hippo its own built-in sun screen.  In order to stay cool it has a thin skin;  which could quite quickly cause dehydration when exposed to the sun.  So,  very cleverly,  the skin secretes a pink fluid, making it look all wet and shiny,  which protects it from the sun’s harmful rays.  This fluid is impressively named,  blood sweat.

The gestation period for a pygmy hippopotamus lasts about 6 months,  after which the female  (cow)  gives birth,  on land,  to a single baby (calf).  A newborn usually weighs in at about 14 pounds.  The baby will remain with its mother until it is weaned (about eight months). Newborns are not able to walk too well at first,  so the mother will hide the baby in the undergrowth whilst she forages for food.  Mother and baby will remain in each other’s company for the next two years.

It is thought,  though not proven,  pygmy hippopotami live between thirty and fifty years, but it is doubtful that they will live this long in the wild.  The name Hippopotamus, incidentally,  comes from the Ancient Greek meaning  “river horse”.

One of the folk tales associated with the pygmy hippopotamus tells of pygmy hippos carrying a shining diamond in their mouths to help travel through thick forests at night; by day the pygmy hippo has a secret hiding place for the diamond,  but if a hunter catches a pygmy hippo at night,  the diamond can be taken.

Habitat
Swamp and rivers  within damp tropical lowland forests.
Where
West Africa:  The Ivory Coast,  Guinea,  Liberia and Sierra Leone  (the largest population occurring in Liberia)
What they eat
Leaves and roots of forest shrubs, ferns,  broad-leaved plants,  semi-aquatic plants and forest herbs,  as well as on fallen fruit.
Threats
The major threat to  pygmy hippopotami is devastating habitat destruction caused by logging,  farming and human settlement.  Poaching for the illegal bushmeat trade is also a known problem.  As are natural predators,  hunting and warfare.
Status: Endangered
It is estimated only 2,000 pygmy hippopotami  (Choeropsis liberiensisare)  are left in the wild, and those numbers are declining rapidly with the ongoing destruction of their habitat.  In 2008,  the species was placed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered.  Various agencies are working to resolve the issue of habitat degradation.   Some pygmy hippos have been bred in captivity,  where they seem to be doing well.  In fact, these breeding programmes have been highly successful.  A great deal of the available information has come from these sources.

“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver”
Martin Luther 

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