for National Geographic News
Hippos in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are on the verge of extinction due to widespread poaching for hippo teeth and meat, conservationists warn.
The park was once home to the world's largest hippo population, with more than 29,000 individuals in 1974. But years of civil war and rampant poaching have inflicted a terrible toll on the area's wildlife. Today, only about 850 hippos may remain in Virunga.
The decline in hippos has also had a devastating impact on the livelihood of thousands of fishers living around Lake Edward, which lies inside the park.
Almost 10,000 hippos once swam in the lake, but the most recent survey shows there are now less than 600 left. The dramatic fall in hippo numbers has resulted in a rapid decline of the Lake Edward's fish stocks, because hippo dung provides vital nutrients for fish.
"The situation is dire," said Robert Muir, the DRC representative of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany. "There is every possibility that the remaining hippos will be shot and killed in the next year or two."
Virunga National Park straddles the Rwandan and Ugandan border. Created in 1925, it is the DRC's oldest protected area and boasts the highest biological diversity on the continent.
But a brutal, decade-long civil war involving government troops and a multitude of militias has left the region in chaos. The settlement of large numbers of displaced people and military personnel in the park has resulted in indiscriminate large-scale poaching.
"Soldiers left in the park without being fed or paid is a recipe for disaster," said Marc Languy, a spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund's Eastern Africa Regional Programme.
In times of trouble, hippo meat has become a valuable commodity, selling for 25 to 50 U.S. cents a pound (U.S. $0.55 to $1.10 a kilogram) on the black market. Hippo canine teeth often end up as part of the illegal ivory trade.
"Hippos are being killed by soldiers and local militia, as well as local poachers," Languy said.
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