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The Wechaiu Hippo Scandal Print E-mail
ImageThe Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary: Separating the Fact from the Fantasy
Daniel Bennett, April 2001

The Nature Conservation Research Council of Ghana claims that the Bui hippos could survive around Weichau, where about 50 hippos still exist along about 40km of the Black Volta. However they decline to produce any evidence to support this claim, which I believe to be extremely doubtful and unsupported by any scientific evidence. It is hard to imagine that any trained biologist could make such outrageous claims. When I asked for confirmation that NCRC had conducted any research on hippos in Ghana they threatened me with legal action!


Hippos have survived in numbers at Bui National Park because they are almost completely undisturbed by people and have access to plentiful creeping grasses throughout the year. During dam construction these feeding areas will quickly disappear under the floodwaters and about 400 hungry hippos will be forced to move upstream in search of food. Some people have claimed that the hippos can be caught and relocated to Weichau. This is a preposterous idea because hippos are extremely difficult to catch, and relocating just 10% of the Bui hippos would be an enormous job. Catching all 400 hippos would be a feat never achieved before, and I have not found any accredited scientist willing to admit that such a plan is feasible.

Even if the hippos managed to make their own way towards Weichau, could they survive there? NCRC say they could, although they refuse to produce any evidence to support the claim. I think it very unlikely for the following reasons

1. The Weichau area harbours a dense human population. During our visit there we counted over 50 people in the river for every hippo seen. People enter the water to bathe, fish and collected molluscs. In addition there were large numbers of cattle both in and out of the water. The few hippos we saw were extremely shy and appeared nervous. Is it possible that the hippo population can be increased by 900% without putting people, their farmland and animals at risk?

2. The river at Weichau represents the international boundary between Ghana and Burkina Faso. Thus although the hippos are protected on the eastern bank, they are afforded no legal protection whatsoever on the western bank, and people could kill the animals from that side of the river without fear of prosecution. Indeed, it is uncertain whether the Weichau hippos can even be said to belong to Ghana, since they probably spend more time in Burkina Faso!

3. It is extremely unlikely that there is sufficient food around Weichau to support many more hippos than already live there. The area is heavily grazed by cattle and much of it is used for agriculture. I expected that careful studies into the amount of forage available would have been carried out before claims that the area could provide an alternative home for a huge group of hippos were made. In fact NCRC has not, to my knowledge, carried out any research into the food availability for hippos, nor into any other aspect of hippo ecology in Ghana. This is despite the fact that the sanctuary has existed since 1998 and has received major support from Earthwatch and other conservation organisations.

In my opinion it is very irresponsible to make such extravagant claims without any evidence to support them, particularly considering the fact that the Bui hippos represent the only hope for long term survival of the species in Ghana. The government and dam constructors are very happy to be able to point to Weichau as an alternative home for the animals, but the truth is that unless a way is found for the Bui hippos to remain at Bui the animals are doomed to die, and the species as a whole is likely to be extinct in Ghana within 100 years.

I can only guess why NCRC have made no public comment about plans to relocate the Bui hippos to Weichau, why they claim the area will provide a suitable home for the animals and why they are unwilling to say what research, if any, they have carried out on hippopotamus ecology in Ghana over the last . In recent months they have begun to claim that Weichau is the "last refuge of the hippo in Ghana".

NCRC have done conservation in Ghana a great disservice with their ill-founded claims. Only if people and cattle were forcibly removed from the entire area, an identical sanctuary was set up on the western riverbank and the animals could somehow be transported safely the 50km upriver from Bui would they have any possibility of surviving at Weichau. Otherwise the displacement of the Bui hippos would result in carnage for both the animals and the people of the Black Volta.

Daniel Bennett, May 2001
The Weichau Hippo Sanctuary: Separating the Fact from the Fantasy
 
 

 

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Varanus bitatawa

Varanus bitatawa is the third species of  monitor lizard to be recognised by science that belongs to the "Pandan Biawak" group,  all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Varanus olivaceus or Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Varanus mabitang or Mabitang) was discovered in 2001 and in 2010 Varanus bitatawa (Butikaw or Bitatawa) was described. Other species of frugivorous monitor lizards may remain undescribed, but many may have  gone extinct without ever having been recognised.

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