KATHERINE ATKINSON
On 16 December 2016, the National Zoological Gardens (NZG) of South Africa welcomed a new addition to an enclosure, a male pygmy hippopotamus.

Angeline Schwan, communications officer at the NZG, said that the baby pygmy hippo, who remains nameless for the time being, “is doing very well and has adapted to its permanent enclosure. It was moved into the enclosure on 25 January 2017. They usually weigh between 4 and 6 kg. At the time of release he weighed approximately 13 kg.” The baby hippo remains with his mother, as pygmy hippos should for the first 8 years, but has been separated from his father. Schwann added, “The youngster is currently just in the enclosure with his mother. Once the two have settled in and the dad has become accustomed to the little one through interaction between the one enclosure and the other, the father will join.” She then continued to say that there are “currently no plans for transfer” and that the baby will remain in the zoo for now. The NZG website reports that monogamous breeding patterns are usually observed in the pygmy hippo species and that sexual maturity occurs at about 3-5 years. It is therefore hoped that within the next few years this baby hippo will find a mate to ensure the longevity of this species.

According to the NZG website, this species is indigenous to West African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Guinea. The historic pygmy hippo population was more abundant than it is today; the species is currently listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The NZG website reports that the key threat to this species is habitat loss due to deforestation. The NZG of South Africa is therefore involved in an international breeding programme to help conserve this unique species.

Tracy Rehse, manager at the NZG, told eNCA in an interview that “there are about 300 pygmy hippos in zoos that take part in this breeding programme. What is important about our little baby here, and we had one born in our facility in Mokopane as well in January, is that they’re both males.” She claimed that this is extremely important to the species as currently there is a female skew, with “60 percent of the population being females.” Rehse then added that there are only between 2 000 and 3 000 left in the wild. These breeding programmes are essential to the livelihood of many diverse species.

In the academic textbook Zoology in the Middle East, Dr Kristin Leus of Copenhagen Zoo wrote on captive breeding and conservation. Dr Leus said: “Captive breeding and other types of intensive management of individuals and populations often become necessary when human caused threats,” and such is the case with the pygmy hippo species. Dr Leus wrote that if sufficient knowledge of the species exists then “breeding individuals in the relative safety of captivity, under expert care and sound management may provide an insurance against extinction”. She also claimed that breeding individuals in captivity provides “opportunities for education, raising of awareness, scientific and husbandry research and other contributions to conservation.” Breeding initiatives “should also aim to maintain a high proportion of the gene diversity that is present in the wild population” since “high levels of inbreeding often have negative effects on life history traits related to reproduction and survival,” according to Dr Leus. It is therefore significant that this breeding programme initiated by the NZG is an international one as, should the pygmy hippos be transferred, gene diversity will be greater and

Photo: National Zoological Gardens of South Africa’s Facebook page

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