African adventures: Salem graduate studying endangered pygmy hippos

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

April Conway has always had an affinity for animals.

"I've loved animals from the time I was 3 or 4," said Conway. "My mother tells me I was chasing squirrels at a young age. By the time I was 10, I knew I wanted to join the Peace Cops and live in a hut in Africa."

A Ph.D. student in the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Conway is involved in a unique project that not only has reaffirmed her affection for wildlife but has also informed her about prospective career choices.

"I always thought I might like to be a wildlife veterinarian, but I found I didn't really like small-animal vet work and I wanted to work outside more," she said.

A 1999 graduate of Salem High School and a 2003 UGA graduate with a degree in biology, Conway's study topic is part of an arrangement between the Warnell School and Conservation International. And the topic she's studying is an elusive, reticent animal that calls four countries in western African home -- the pygmy hippo.

But before Conway found her way to the hippos, she followed a circuitous path from Clarke County to the wilds of Africa. After earning her undergraduate degree from UGA, Conway had a year of internships, working first at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Dallas, Texas, and then spending six months at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Naples, Fla.

Two weeks after her internship in Florida concluded, in January 2005, Conway left the U.S. for a two-year Peace Corps stint in the African country of Niger. While her primary focus was environmental education and natural resource management (Conway said she surveyed the last herd of West African giraffes), she said she "did a little of everything" in the area where she worked, including organizing a midwife training program for seven villages.

After leaving the Peace Corps in 2007, Conway sought a transition from hut life to fast-paced American living, so she spent four months working at the nature center at Chugach State Park in Alaska. In the meantime, she had been accepted for graduate school at UGA and, not long after returning to Athens, the pygmy hippo program -- which consisted of developing a comprehensive conservation plan for the endangered species -- became Conway's academic focus.

"I had originally planned to be working with another student in the Congo, but we hadn't been able to find funding," said Conway, who was in Sierra Leone from October 2008 until this past July. "Then an e-mail came in from Conservation International about the pygmy hippo program on an island in Sierra Leone, and I jumped on it. There was a population of pygmy hippos on the island, but they didn't know how many or what to do with them."

While completing service learning training in Tanzania, Conway came up with the idea of strapping nearly two dozen infrared, motion-detection cameras to trees to try to get a handle on the number of pygmy hippos living on the island.

"The pygmy hippo is a solitary animal," she said, pointing out that the average pygmy hippo weighs between 300 and 700 pounds, in comparison to a normal hippopotamus, which can tip the scales at 5,000 pounds. "They're not big movers and spend most of their time hiding. In the 10 months I was there, I only actually say two of them, but I have more than 100 photographs, which is more than anyone else has gotten."

While photographing her subject, Conway captured images of other endangered species, including the Rufus Fishing Owl, which had never been photographed in the wild. She added that she didn't have enough data to create a population model for the pygmy hippos because she didn't want to disrupt their activity patterns.

"They're nocturnal," she said. "They feed at night and they don't use the same trails as the other animals on the island ... They're not like regular hippos -- they're not aggressive and their first instinct is to run. I've never heard of anyone being hurt by a pygmy hippo."

Conway said her next step is to return to Sierra Leone early next year with the hope of being able to outfit some pygmy hippos with radio transmitters to track their patterns and habits.

"We're still trying to figure out the best way to do that," said Conway, whose major UGA advisers for the program are John Carroll and Sonia Hernandez, professors in the Warnell School. "We tried baiting them and that didn't work well. The next phase of the program is radio telemetry, where we'll put the transmitter on their back or tail and try to determine their tracking methods."

The daughter of Leslie and Joan Conway of Conyers, Conway is back in Athens, spending her days writing grants ("This next phase is going to be pretty expensive," she said) and making the transition from Ph.D. student to Ph.D. candidate. She said she hopes to earn her degree by 2012.

When asked of her ultimate career goal, Conway said, "I love animals and I love working with people. I want to return to Africa to work with a conservation organization, to find a way for me to benefit wildlife and for wildlife to benefit me. Many of these endangered animals are being hunted and I'd like to develop alternative ways for the people who live there to make an income from something other than poaching. I want to help communities take ownership of their natural resources."

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga. If you have a story idea, contact karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.