for National Geographic News
Hippopotamuses are being butchered by the hundreds inside a Central African wildlife reserve, conservation groups report.
An aerial census conducted yesterday put the hippo population in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at 629.
This represents a 98 percent crash in numbers since the 1970s, when there were some 30,000 animals, according to the Frankfurt Zoological Society based in Germany, which carried out the census.
In recent weeks about 400 hippos have been slain, according to Emmanuel de Merode, head of the Africa Conservation Fund based in Kenya.
The killing is being blamed on Congolese militia currently operating inside the park. The rebels are believed to be eating and selling hippo meat and taking the animals' teeth for ivory.
The census team reported flying over rebels as they killed and cut up several hippos, as well as carcasses scattered along the shores of Virunga's Lake Edward.
The lake once supported the largest concentration of hippos in Central Africa (read "Hippos—And Precious Dung—Vanishing From African Lake" [December 14, 2005]).
Given the current rate of slaughter, the group says, hippos could soon be wiped out in Virunga.
Rebels vs. Rangers
Virunga National Park is a nearly two-million-acre (790,000-hectare) protected area in the eastern DRC that holds important wildlife habitats ranging from volcanoes to swamps to snowfields (Democratic Republic of the Congo map).
The park was designated a United Nations World Heritage site in 1979 and was placed on a sublist of sites in danger in 1994.
But in the run-up to the second round of presidential elections in the worn-torn country, United Nations peacekeepers had announced there would be no anti-poaching operations in the park until after the elections to avoid provoking unrest.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES