Our vehicle pulled into the village late one rainy night. Dozens of my new neighbors, Sierra Leone’s Mende people, emerged from their thatch-roof houses, looking cross at being woken up and not exactly welcoming. We unloaded some of my gear underneath the dripping eaves, and as I tried to find something dry to wear, I realized that all my equipment: books, electronics, and gear, were soaking wet in the back of the truck. I had spent the entire day with a driver whose accent was so thick that several minutes into a conversation about cheese, I realized we were discussing chiefs, not cheddar. I had eaten entrails soup for lunch, been bounced over dirt roads for over 10 hours, and knew not a single person around me. I was suddenly glad it was dark so that nobody could see the silent tears streaming down my face.

I rummaged around in the dark and found a flashlight and rain jacket, and clinging to these items as a lifeline, I trudged down to the riverside after my guides to set off across the water to the island. It was pitch black, and I could hear the roar of rapids downriver. I was terrified that we would hit a rock or miss the landing point, but we reached safely. Escorted to a musty tent, I collapsed, exhausted and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

This journey to Sierra Leone was the first step towards my dissertation research. However, my first experiences in Africa were spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa after graduating from the University of Georgia in 2003. Living without electricity or running water in a small rural village in Niger, I was frequently sick with parasites and lost 80 pounds in a year. The temperatures soared over 120°F on some days, and Harmattan winds brought the sands of the Sahara to my doorstep.

However, I challenged myself to participate in every aspect of village life: pounding millet into the daily meal with women, farming alongside men (to their vast amusement), and carrying water from the well on my head. In my second year, I teamed up with park rangers to conduct mammal surveys and organize school gardens and tree nurseries. In this village on the opposite side of the river from one of the few protected areas in the country, I developed a greater appreciation of the struggles facing conservation in a developing country.

Park W, named for its location along a W-shaped curve in the Niger River, is home to a diverse array of creatures, including cheetahs, lions, elephants, and an amazing bird community. Despite this biodiversity, people in Niger are some of the poorest in the world. The land in Niger is desolate and barren; not much time is spent pondering the merits of conservation when daily life is so difficult. One day I tagged along with park rangers on one of their river outings in a local canoe. Suddenly we spotted another canoe filled with grass on the park side of the river, and the men inside paddled frantically away from us. As we followed behind, a surreal feeling came over me as I realized I was in a “high speed” canoe chase pursuing illegal grass.

The poachers reached the other side before us, but had to leave the grass behind, and the rangers burned the contraband. It seemed so wasteful, when I knew they were stealing grass to feed their livestock. My own education on conservation up to this point had been from a preservation standpoint, where resources should be protected from humans. However, in a country so devoid of resources on one side of the river, and with so many on the other, I began to realize that conservation is far more complicated.

When my Peace Corps tenure ended in 2007, I returned to the University of Georgia to obtain a doctorate in Forest Resources. At the end of my first year of classes, I received an email about an endangered, elusive creature - the pygmy hippopotamus. I was intrigued. There was a possibility for funding field research to study pygmy hippos on a river island in Sierra Leone. I searched the scientific literature, and did not find much information. With the help of my advisors, I wrote a proposal to Conservation International, who agreed to fund me for my first field season.

I arrived in Sierra Leone in October in 2008 to begin my dissertation research on remote Tiwai Island. This 12 km2 river island was designated a Wildlife Sanctuary in the 1980s, and contains one of the highest primate densities in the world. However, I was setting out virtually alone in a war-torn, impoverished country to find an animal that is notoriously difficult to study even for experienced researchers.

Although they superficially look like the well-known common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis) differ in ecology, behavior, and most conspicuously, body size. The common hippopotamus can reach upwards of 3,000 kg, whereas the diminutive pygmy hippopotamus rarely tops 300 kg. The hippos are so distinct that the species are two different genera. While common hippos congregate in large social groups, the pygmy hippopotamus is rare, solitary and nocturnal; traits that make direct observation nearly impossible and survey methods more complex.

I arrived that rainy night on Tiwai Island armed with 20 remote-sensing camera traps to capture pygmy hippos in digital pictures. I was also exploring methods to safely capture a pygmy hippopotamus and attach a radio tracking device. Since locally pygmy hippos are known to be delicious and they routinely destroy farmer’s crops (see video below), I also created questionnaires to learn about local knowledge of pygmy hippos and conservation perceptions.

During my field research, I spent almost every moment of every day with my 2 local field assistants, Kenewa and Bockary. Although they could not read or write, they knew the forest with its flora and fauna better than any foreigner. By the end of my stay, Kenewa had converted one of his storage rooms into a home off the island for me. He carved my name into the door and said this room would always be mine, no matter where I was in the world. Bockary was the joker of the team and a lady’s man. He claimed to have 10 girlfriends…in one town. Unfortunately this meant that sometimes work items would go missing, as the girlfriends decided they wanted what he had for themselves.

Minah, Tiwai Island’s research coordinator, was also my guide to culture, villages, and the island. He had worked on the island helping foreigners since before I was born. He taught me how to ride a motorcycle and demonstrated local fishing techniques. My team and I discussed all aspects of our cultures, trying to understand our differences and where we had common ground. Although work took up much of our time, my team and I would sometimes go to the local dances, where DJs would set up in a village meeting area and we would dance the night away to “sweet Salone’s” music. Sierra Leone, affectionately known as Sweet Salone, has a burgeoning music industry. Songs range from pure entertainment to expression of inequalities and political commentary.

For many months, we explored forests, farms and the Moa River learning about pygmy hippos’ habits and habitats through photos from the camera traps (see video below). However, though I saw many footprints and dung and captured images of hippos, I had yet to see a single pygmy hippo with my own eyes. Tourists who came to the island for the weekend would sometimes wander into the research station for a conversation. They often implied that I must be a pretty poor researcher if I had never seen the animal I had traveled thousands of miles to find. Even knowing that few foreigners see these rare creatures in the wild, I began to despair.

One day in May 2009 as we paddled upriver in our dugout canoe, Kenewa uttered a small gasp of surprise. There, in the water next to the riverbank, was the animal for which I had been searching for over seven months. With a splash, the pygmy hippo clambered out of the water onto a sandy beach and stopped to watch us. This was the moment I had been waiting for, and I could not help but grin. It locked eyes with us for a few moments before turning and running into the forest. Although pygmy hippos depend on water sources like common hippos, pygmy hippos spend most of their nights in the forest. They have a more sloping profile and their feet are more splayed than the common hippopotamus, which allows them to quietly tunnel under dense vegetation through the forest.

Project money ran out after 10 months, and I returned to the States for a 9 month hiatus to write grant proposals appealing for funds. Armed with new funding from several zoos and a Fulbright Scholarship, I flew back in August 2010. Sierra Leone was deep into the rainy season. Although everything was soggy from the unrelenting rain, my arrival that year was far different than my first. People ran out of their houses to greet me and cheer as I stepped out of the vehicle. I looked around and saw familiar smiling faces, and it felt like coming home.

We soon began our first pit trap attempts to capture a pygmy hippopotamus. If the pit traps were successful in catching a pygmy hippopotamus, we would bring a wildlife veterinarian to Sierra Leone to help us anesthetize a hippo. When the hippo was asleep, we would place a radio collar to track the hippo’s movements through the forest. We were interested in learning more about hippo habitat to identify what pygmy hippos need to survive. Using local hunter knowledge and maybe a little bit of “juju”, we dug several holes and covered them with rattan mats and debris. Then it was time to wait.

One morning I woke up in the village and went about my morning routine. Suddenly, Minah approached me. The trap monitors had radioed in to say there was a red river hog in one of our traps. Although it was not a pygmy hippopotamus, it was a great animal to practice our pit trap method on. I gathered a few men and we zoomed to the island on the boat. We rushed to the trap and I looked gingerly over the rim.

My first thought was “Oh there are two hogs in there.” As they squirmed around, I realized there were more than two. There were four. Apparently the trap checker had only gotten close enough to the trap to see that there was a hog in there before running away in fear. My plan had seemed a lot simpler from the village. We would throw a sheet over the red river hog to distract it, while collapsing one side of the trap so it could climb up. However, red river hogs are one of the most aggressive animals on the island. None of the men were eager to approach the trap. They all looked at me for instruction, but I was flummoxed.

We approached closer, and the hogs started squealing and trying to scramble out. Suddenly all seven of us were up in trees. One of the men looked over at me from his tree and exclaimed that he didn’t know I could move that fast. We debated how to get these animals out without anybody getting hurt. Bockary volunteered to collapse the side, and the rest of us left the area with relief. The hogs soon exited and ran away, too tired to bother with us. Later, Bockary admitted that he volunteered only because he was hungry and the only thing between him and food was making sure the hogs got out safely. Success!

A few tense weeks of waiting later, Minah came to knock on my door and whispered “There’s a hippo in one of your traps.” I called Kenewa and Bockary into my room and said “OK, this is really something amazing, but I don’t want you to tell a soul in this village.” I was afraid of a village riot, with dozens of people rushing to the scene to get a glimpse of hippo if word got out. I did not want anybody getting hurt, so the fewer people at the trap the better. My assistants let out a quiet whoop of joy and we danced around hugging for a few seconds before gathering up a few key people and materials to head to the trap.

As we approached the trap, I saw the most beautiful animal in the world – a pygmy hippopotamus (see video below)! He was lying down, obviously tired from trying to climb out and glistening dark purple in the early morning light. Although we had now successfully captured the hippo, we had to let it go because this was just a trial. Kenewa began to try to collapse one of the walls, but the hippo roared in agitation.

Learning from our previous experience with the hogs, we brought empty canvas bags to fill with dirt to form steps. We filled the bags with dirt and dropped them in. The pygmy hippo attacked the first one and tore it to pieces, which had us all running for the nearest trees (unfortunately I chose the one covered in razor grass). When we placed the second bag in, the hippo used the extra bag as a step to exit the trap, and then ran off into the forest. “Ah bwa!” He’s out! We returned triumphantly to the village. There was a very large party in the village that night. I sent excited text messages to my professors to let them know we were ready to try the real captures.

Now that we knew the traps could successfully and safely capture a pygmy hippopotamus, my major professor, Dr. John Carroll and a wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Michele Miller, flew to Sierra Leone to help me capture and radio-collar a pygmy hippopotamus. My advisor, Dr. Sonia Hernandez, would coordinate everything from the United. I added 2 more field assistants (Alusine and Lahai) who could read and write to help. Unfortunately we did not successfully capture a hippo during this time, although we had several near-captures (the pygmy hippos fell halfway in but were able to escape). We hope to travel for another attempt later this year if we can raise the funds.

One of the highlights of my research on Tiwai was when the U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone came to visit me as I was one of the few Fulbright Scholarship students in the country. When we arrived in the village, very few people were around. We had arrived earlier than expected and everybody was still in their fields. I was worried that my plans for a smooth trip would go awry. We made some short introductions to the people in town, and left for the island.

That evening, when I was chatting with the visitors, I heard drums in the distance. As the sound grew louder, we all popped up from our chairs. Out of the forest came the villagers, drumming, singing and dancing. Among them was a man dressed in a full length raphia palm costume. Although I had arranged for a general cultural show in honor of the U.S. Ambassador, this “pygmy hippo devil” (see video below) was a surprise: constructed painstakingly by the villagers just for this night. I was speechless that the villagers took so much pride in their pygmy hippos that this was the animal they chose to display to the Ambassador.

Conflicts in Conservation

The relationships I developed with the local people during my tenure in the Peace Corps and in Sierra Leone gave me a unique perspective of conservation. I witnessed the frustrations that protecting wildlife and land can bring in an area where people are struggling for daily survival. Most of the villagers could not grow enough food to support themselves through the entire year, and have to rely on imported rice when the food ran out. Although they live in areas of great plant and wildlife diversity, this honor means little to people who are subsistence farmers trying to scratch out a living in an unforgiving land.

A civil war devastated the country and Sierra Leone is still struggling to recover. My own field assistants struggled during the war. Kenewa, who was 12 when the war began, was forced to take drugs by soldiers and risked his life to raid food from the rebels. Bockary escaped to Monrovia, Liberia, only to return when the war was over. Minah had to flee for his life into the forest because the rebels thought all foreign researchers had left their money with him. Many of the village men had become Kamojors, the grassroots militia claiming to have magical powers that allowed them to be bullet proof.

During our daily walks in the forests, my assistants told me horror stories of amputations and executions. The decade-long war ended in 2002, when the rebel Revolutionary United Front was defeated. However, with a high infant mortality rate, low literacy rate, and overall bleak poverty level, conservation tends to take a backburner to more pressing issues. Malaria is a major concern in this area, as I personally experienced several times.

However, malaria had an even more personal affect because it killed some of the people I care about. My good friend and confidant, Kenewa’s brother (also called Kenewa), died shortly after my return to the US in 2009. I was in Sierra Leone for his first bout of malaria and took him to the doctor for treatment. However, shortly after I left Sierra Leone, I received a phone call from Minah. Kenewa had complained of headache, and later in the evening told everybody that he was dying. Thinking he was being overdramatic, his brother told him to try to sleep. He complied, and never woke up.

Residents who live near Tiwai hope that conservation of their land can bring foreign assistance in the form of tourism, research or development assistance. However, often the expectations outweigh the reality. When I asked villagers what they would do if they were the “bossman” of Tiwai Island, they responded that they would bring cell phone towers, schools, mosques, clinics, and much more. When I asked them how they would get money to build these, they responded that they would “cry to the outside world.”

Tiwai is remote by Western standards; the road conditions are unpredictable and never pleasant. A 200 mile journey from Freetown can take anywhere from 6 to 15 hours depending on your vehicle and the season. The tourist facilities on Tiwai Island are best described as rustic, although there is usually electricity (solar-powered) and running (river-pumped) water. Lodging is tents with foam mattresses.

While these amenities definitely provide a full rainforest experience, some tourists do not want to rough it or make the long journey. One visitor remarked to me “I knew it was ‘country’, but I didn’t know it was this country!” Without many visitors, there are not enough funds to satisfy the eight villages that ‘own’ Tiwai. Each year the tourism revenues are divided among the 8 villages for community development. However, during my first year in Sierra Leone, the annual fees were first given to the chiefs to distribute in the communities. These chiefs took what they felt was their share (which was a substantial portion), before handing the money over to the next chief who also took his ‘share’. The money that actually reached the villages was very small, but the villages did not feel that they had the power to change things. Fortunately, a new system was created, and the amount of money that reaches the villages now is greater.

Researchers can help generate more direct funds by providing employment for local residents, introducing capital directly into the local economy. In countries with few educational opportunities, any sharing of knowledge between researcher and resident is beneficial. Field assistants often bring the scientific knowledge they learn during their employment to their families and friends. My field assistants became ambassadors for the pygmy hippopotamus, and helped to disseminate new findings to the communities.

Sierra Leoneans place a lot of hope on their children. Some families spend a major portion of their income to send their children to school. The parents hope that one day the children will return the favor and take care of their parents when they are old. A better educated child has a better chance of supporting the family. However, a better educated child also has the chance to improve development in the entire country. If environmental education is also incorporated into the local schools, these children will be equipped to make land management decisions when they begin their own families and, if they return to the village, farms.

For this reason, I conducted environmental education programs in local schools and villages alongside my collaborators, the Across the River Transboundary Peace Park project and the Environmental Foundation for Africa. We also painted murals and printed posters depicting wildlife and the importance of conservation, placed conservation bumper stickers on public transportation vehicles, and created a Pygmy Hippo Awareness Day with t-shirts and contests.

So far the response to our project has been excellent. Residents are proud that their island is an important habitat for this rare animal, as demonstrated during the Ambassador’s visit, and they believe this project will help advertise tourism and research on Tiwai Island. When people view pygmy hippos and other wildlife as more than protein or pests, they are more willing to help in conservation efforts. Our hope is that one day the pygmy hippo can be seen as the diamond of Sierra Leone. As Kenewa once said “We shall never again eat pygmy hippo meat. We have tasted pygmy hippo benefits, and they are sweeter.”


All images belong to the author, April Conway, and all people in photographs have given permission for the photos to be used.