"Within days the Mai Mai rebels were in the park carrying out industrial-scale poaching," de Merode said.
De Merode says the militia, which is armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, has taken advantage of "the pre-electoral slowdown on law enforcement in area."
The Mai Mai movement first appeared as a peasant uprising in the eastern DRC in the 1960s.
"Today they don't have any clearly defined agenda other than the sort of thing that we are witnessing in Virunga National Park," de Merode added.
Robert Muir, DRC country representative for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, says hippo and elephant ivory taken by the Mai Mai and other poachers is collected from militia camps and traded illegally on the international black market.
The Congolese army, which operates in the park without sufficient rations or salary, has also been accused of poaching hippos, Muir says.
Also, rebels have recently launched attacks on the park's rangers, with one ranger killed last week.
More than a hundred rangers have died in recent years while trying to protect Virunga's wildlife, which includes populations of highly rare mountain gorillas (related news: "'Gorillas in the Mist' Park Slashed by Squatters" [July 12, 2004]).
Recently the Frankfurt Zoological Society helped establish and train an elite team dubbed the Congo Rangers to protect Virunga's wildlife.
The Africa Conservation Fund's Internet program WildlifeDirect has been helping to expose the plight of the rangers by providing them with a dedicated Congo Rangers blog.
But the park's rangers are massively under-resourced and outnumbered five-to-one by poachers, Muir says.
"Rapid UN intervention is needed directly following the elections and needs to be carried out with the park rangers," Muir said.
The Zoological Society of London says that the Mai Mai are thought to have killed half the hippos remaining in the park in recent weeks.
Other animals including buffalo and elephants have also been shot.
"This is one of the biggest challenges the park rangers have had to face," Lyndsay Gale, conservation program coordinator for the U.K. wildlife research organization, said in statement.
"It comes as a devastating blow after recent surveys indicated wildlife populations were beginning to recover from over a decade of civil war."
De Merode, of the Africa Conservation Fund, says the current elections should see the DRC finally become a democratic state.
This "can only help as far as bringing peace and stability back to Virunga and the other national parks," he adds.
But de Merode warns that re-establishing law and order throughout the country remains a huge undertaking.
"The park still has several thousand military personnel stationed within its boundaries, illegal land-grabs have eroded the integrity of the park's boundaries, and illegal logging and charcoal production is prolific throughout the park," he said.
"The Congolese rangers have shown incredible courage in tackling these problems," de Merode added. "As a result the park and its wildlife are still there to protect."
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