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Hippos Butchered by the Hundreds in Congo Wildlife Park

James Owen
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2006
 
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.

"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.

Hippos Decimated

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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