The IUCN Hippo Specialty Group Conservation Genetics Program

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In 2001, researchers will begin collecting DNA from hippos around Tanzania. The information gained from this program will serve to examine the inter-relatedness of hippos within and between wild populations. This knowledge will provide much-needed insights into several areas critical to proper management of hippos and their long-term conservation.

Program Title:

"Hippo critical issues: Using conservation genetics to promote hippo conservation in Africa." "Hippo critical issues: Using conservation genetics to promote hippo conservation in Africa."


During the course of this program, DNA will be collected from from hippos in the wild as well as in zoos for the purposes of performing conservation activities and genetic research. Genetic markers will be assessed from hippos in the wild to identify groups of hippos experiencing increased levels of heterozygosity and/or genetic isolation. This information will provide researchers and wildlife managers with information on the groups of hippos that are most at risk. Future applications of this data will include identifying the existence of regional subspecies, and the genetic health of the small remaining population of pygmy hippos. The initial phases of this program are anticipated to last at least 3 years.

Goals and Objectives:

This is a long-term project, anticipated to continue for 4 years. The goal of the project is to use conservation genetics technology to inform and educate the conservation community on the status of both hippo species and to determine potential management actions that would foster species survival. 

The long-term objectives of this project are to: 

a) Use hippo tissue or blood samples from captive populations to identify genetic markers that will allow for comparisons within and between wild hippo populations. Using tissue and blood, we hope to develop markers that are robust and can be used with on fecal matter.

b) Use genetic markers to explore possible sub-species between East, Southern and West African common hippo populations. These data will also provide estimates of population isolation and heterozygosity by comparing genetic similarities between populations within a country or region.

c) Use genetic markers to evaluate heterozygosity and to estimate the number of individual pygmy hippos within their remaining range.

d) Work collaboratively with veterinarians and park managers in African countries to provide exposure and experience with genetic sampling techniques and equipment. Through this collaborative effort, we call attention to the vulnerable status of hippos for land-managing agencies and the international conservation community.

e) Generate recommendations and conservation strategies that will foster hippo conservation and have a direct impact on protection of remaining hippo populations in their native countries. 

Materials and Methods: 

The program will meet its objectives using advanced technology to both retrieve DNA samples as well as to perform the necessary tests.

At the beginning of the program, tissue samples will be collected from populations of hippos in zoos in the U.S. and Europe. The relatedness of these hippos is generally well-known. These tissue samples will be sent to a genetics lab in Tokyo to verify the best genetic markers for identifying the relatedness of hippos. In time, the genetic samples may be taken from fecal matter rather than directly from hippo's bodies.

Researchers will then move to the field and begin collecting tissues samples from hippos with a one-of-a-kind, remotely retrievable, skin biopsy dart. The dart is projected using a crossbow. Upon hitting the animal, a tiny piece of skin is taken. The dart, which is connected to high-strength fishing line, is then reeled back in to the researchers on the shore. The tissue samples will then be sent to Tokyo where the relevant genetic markers identified in the zoo studies will be assessed for the wild hippos.


Data collected from this program will be made public in research journals as well as on the IUCN Hippo SubGroup's website and newsletter.  Further, details of the data and resulting insights into conservations strategies will be returned to officials in Africa working toward more effective hippo management practices.  At the end of the project, the darting equipment and related biopsy dart accessories will be donated to the Tanzanian National Parks veterinary program.

Additional Information:

For more information regarding this program, please contact the Chair of the IUCN Hippo Specialty Group, Becca Lewison at rlewison@sunstroke.sdsu.edu.