WWF: Congolese Hippos Wiped Out for Meat and Teeth

GLAND, Switzerland, August 29, 2003 (ENS) - A new census of hippos shows a 95 percent decline in the Virunga National Park, formerly home to the world’s biggest population of these vegetarian, water-loving giant mammals. Increasing international demand for hippo canine teeth in the illegal ivory trade and the need for meat to feed the region's various armed forces are driving the slaughter.

The conservation organization WWF, which released the new research today, is calling on the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to work with conservation groups to stop the poaching of hippos in the park and to conserve wildlife, such as the critically endangered mountain gorillas that share this unique ecosystem.

Recent peace agreements are an opportunity for the DRC "to put into place proper planning and management of the country’s natural resources," urged WWF.

WWF expressed deep concern over the loss of so many of the hippos. Less than 30 years ago, some 29,000 hippos lived in this World Heritage site on the DRC's eastern border. Today only 1,300 remain.

"Armed factions are killing hippos in shocking numbers for their meat and teeth," said WWF International in a statement today.

The hippo census was carried out by WWF, together with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), and other conservation organizations in March and August. Until this year, Virunga National Park has been at the heart of interfactional fighting, preventing ICCN and WWF from working in significant areas.

When they were able to visit traditional hippo habitats, the researchers learned that earlier this year, hundreds of hippos were killed by poison in River Rutsuru, which supplies Lake Edward with freshwater, "most likely for their canine teeth for sale as ivory," the report said.


A species related to camels, pigs, and deer, hippos spend their days in the water and come out to graze on land at night. (Photo © WWF-Canon / Fritz Polking)
In 1995, the hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means they can only be traded internationally if a scientific authority holds that the trade would not be detrimental to the survival of the species. The trade is documented and monitored under this provision.

One subspecies, Hippopotamus amphibius tschadensis, is listed as vulnerable by the 1996 Red List of Threatened Species published by the IUCN-World Conservation Union.

“WWF is concerned that unless trade is closely controlled and poaching is stopped, hippos will be threatened with extinction,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF International’s Species Programme.

“Hippos are extremely important in maintaining the ecological balance in rivers and lakes and nearby grasslands,” says Marc Languy of WWF’s Eastern Africa Regional Programme.

Hippo waste feeds the fish in Lake Edward, which supports over 20,000 people living around the park who depend on fish for their livelihood, explained Languy.

A hippo can consume up to 60 kilos of grass every day, maintaining the grasslands and opening up paths for other animals to get to water holes. “Hippo dung provides essential basic elements for the food chain, particularly for fish. The loss of more than 27,000 hippos in the past few decades is a double blow - fish catches have dwindled and the freshwater ecosystems are losing hundreds of tons of nutrients every day," Languy said.

The killing of hippos in Virunga National Park and the urgent need for long term conservation of national parks and valuable protected areas will be the focus of the forthcoming 5th World Parks’ Congress in Durban, South Africa which opens a week long session on September 8.