Africa’s Liberia and Ivory Coast, with a few found in Sierra Leone and Guinea


Rain forest, swamp, and river

Good things come in small packages

At first glance, the pygmy hippopotamus looks like a mini version of its larger relative, the hippopotamus (also known as the river or common hippopotamus). But it differs in behavior and physical characteristics. The pygmy hippo has adaptations for spending time in the water but is much less aquatic than the hippo. Its nose and ears close underwater just like a hippo's do, but its head is rounder and narrower, its neck is proportionally longer, and its eyes are not on the top of its head.

The pygmy hippo's feet are less webbed and its toes more free than those of the hippo, and its legs are longer than its huge cousin's. The pygmy hippo's teeth are also different: it only has one pair of incisors, while the hippo has two or three.

Sensitive skin

The top layer of the pygmy hippo's greenish-black skin is smooth and thin to help the animal stay cool in the humid rain forest. However, the thin skin could cause the hippo to dehydrate quickly in the sun, so its skin oozes out a pink fluid that looks like beads of sweat and gives the hippo a shiny, or wet, appearance. This fluid, called blood sweat, helps to protect the animal's sensitive skin from sunburn. Too bad we humans don't have built-in sunscreen!

Common hippos give birth underwater, while pygmy hippo calves are born on land.
A pygmy hippo calf can nurse from its mother on land or underwater.
A loud eater, the pygmy hippo can be heard munching from up to 150 feet (45 meters) away.
Pygmy hippos were unknown to Western science until about 1840.
A common or river hippo weighs about 10 times as much as a pygmy hippo.
Tire mogul Harvey Firestone, who owned a rubber plantation in Liberia, gave President Calvin Coolidge a pygmy hippo named Billy. Billy is an ancestor of almost all pygmy hippos living in American zoos.
Whales are the closest living relatives to hippos.
A hippo’s jaws are hinged far to the back of the mouth, allowing an enormous gape of 150 degrees. The pygmy hippo’s gape is slightly less, but a human mouth can only open up to 45 degrees.

The San Diego Zoo’s first pygmy hippo, an adult female named Tiny, was obtained in 1941. In 1963, we received three pygmy hippos, a pair from the Ivory Coast and a female born at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland. We welcomed the birth of our first pygmy hippo, Holly, in 1970, and have had 13 more births over the years at both the Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Today, the Zoo has a pair of pygmy hippos, Francesca and Elgon, along the Hippo Trail in the San Diego Zoo’s Lost Forest. The two get along well, as long as Elgon remembers that Francesca is the boss. Francesca came from the zoo in Rome in 2000, and Elgon, born in a zoo in South Africa, arrived here in 2004. They spend their time munching on greens, swimming in their pool, and basking in the sun.

They occasionally share a piece of browse with the Wolf’s guenons, monkeys that share their mixed-species exhibit along the Hippo Trail in the Zoo’s Lost Forest, munching on one end while a guenon nibbles on the other. And our pygmy hippos don’t seem to mind when a guenon roommate hops on their back for a ride! It’s all great fun for animals and guests alike. At night, the guenons go into their bedrooms, and the pygmy hippos get free reign of the exhibit area, since they are largely nocturnal and enjoy roaming and resting under the stars.

Known to be found only in four countries in West Africa, pygmy hippos are now classified as endangered, with possibly less than 3,000 individuals remaining in the wild. The forests that shelter them are being cut down or burned away, and the rivers where they swim are now polluted by humans. These shy animals are also hunted for their meat in logged areas. Fortunately, pygmy hippos breed well in zoos; however, more protection is needed for the wild populations so that they will not vanish altogether.

You can help us bring species like the pygmy hippo back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.