Hippos could be added to the list of the world’s most endangered animals due to declining populations due to the climate crisis, poaching and the ivory trade.
The semi-aquatic mammals are found in lakes and rivers in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated population of 115,000-130,000. In addition to the trade in ivory – found in the teeth – and animal parts, they are threatened by habitat loss and degradation and the effects of global warming.
Hippos are also legally traded for commercial purposes and hunting trophies under Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Ahead of the next Cites Cop in Panama in November this year, 10 West African countries, including Togo, Gabon and Mali, have proposed giving hippos the highest protection under CITES by including them in Appendix I of the treaty. Hippos are already listed as an Appendix II species, which means they are not necessarily in danger of extinction, but could be if their trade is not regulated.
If approved, it would mean a total international ban on the trade in hippo body parts and ivory to help prevent the decline of the species. It is estimated that at least 77,579 hippo parts and products were legally traded from 2009 to 2018.
In 2016, hippos were classified as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List with local decline, particularly in West Africa, raising fears for the species’ survival in some of the 38 African countries where it is found .
The hippopotamus is one of the world’s heaviest land animals; males can weigh up to 1,800 kg and are often found in large groups. The animals are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation due to their long gestation period of eight months and females that only reach sexual maturity after nine or ten years.
Rebecca Lewison, co-chair of the IUCN SSC hippo specialist group, said hippos have been overlooked as a species of conservation concern because of their high population density, which may give the impression that many of them are in the wild. But populations have declined significantly over the past 20 years.
“The biggest threat to hippos is habitat loss and degradation. Common hippos depend on fresh water for their survival, which often puts them in conflict with local communities that also need fresh water for agriculture, energy, fishing and housing,” she said.
“Hippo-human conflicts are increasing, especially in West Africa where common hippo populations are declining rapidly. Conflicts between hippos and humans unfortunately result in fatalities for both hippo and humans and have contributed to a related problem of unregulated hunting of hippopotamus meat and ivory, which is found in their canines,” she added.
The proposals are unlikely to affect a small population of hippos in Colombia, which grew out of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private collection. Many ecologists say this is an invasive species and should be culled.
Following the proposal, the CITES Secretariat will assess whether hippos meet the Annex I criteria and issue an opinion based on expert evidence.
Keenan Stears, a University of California Santa Barbara ecologist who is based in South Africa’s Kruger National Park for part of the year, said he supported the proposed inclusion because of the important role hippos play in ecosystems. “A large proportion of hippos are in rivers that experience significant reductions in river flow. Threats such as habitat destruction for agriculture are a huge problem,” he said.
But under the right conditions, Stears said, populations could stabilize. “With sufficient vegetation, they can recover fairly quickly. Any kind of protected area would be fine if the population increased rapidly.”
John Scanlon, secretary general of Cites from 2010 to 2018, said the upgrade to Appendix I would ban all commercial trade in hippos, but would not prohibit bushmeat hunting. “It is flesh, teeth or skin: any commercial international trade would be prohibited.
“A number of organizations will have their say on the proposal, and I suspect it will be a big deal,” he added. “There are only about 1,500 species classified on Appendix I.”