Militia Group Slaughtering Congo Hippos

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - Poachers could wipe out the hippo population in the Democratic Republic of Congo by year's end, conservationists warned Thursday. A Congolese militia group has killed some 400 hippos - about half the total population - in the past two weeks, according to researchers with the Zoological Society of London.

The rebel group, known as the Mai Mai, has set up base in Virunga National Park and is slaughtering the hippos for meat and ivory, the society said.

The militants have also killed a number of buffalo, elephants and other animals and attacked conservation rangers and their families.

hippo

The common hippo, whose name means "river horse," is the third largest species found on land. (Photo courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)

The culling of the hippo population continues a tragic decline for the species in a region that used to have the world's second largest group of the massive creatures.

Lake Edward, at the center of Virunga National Park, was until recently a stronghold for the species - some 22,000 hippos were recorded here less than two decades ago.

But years of conflict have decimated the population. The 8,000 square-kilometer park, which is a World Heritage Site, lies on the eastern border of Congo, between Uganda and Rwanda. Rebels from both war-torn countries have frequently fled into the area over the past decade. And the brutal Congolese civil war, which has killed more than 4 million people, has made protecting the country's wildlife even more difficult.

A recent survey by the Zoological Society of London found less than 900 hippos in the park - prior to the massive slaughter of the past two weeks.

If the killing continues at its current rate, field workers with the society fear there will be no hippos left in many parts of the national park by Christmas.

The main hope now rests with an elite ranger team of the Congolese Conservation Institute (ICCN), established recently to protect wildlife. The society is urging additional support to reinforce the rangers, some of whom have been attacked by the Mai Mai rebel group.

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There are not enough park guards to safeguard the wildlife of Virunga National Park. (Photo by Martin Harvey courtesy WWF-Canon)

"This is one of the biggest challenges the park rangers have had to face since the war," said Lyndsay Gale, coordinator of the Zoological Society of London's bushmeat and forests conservation program. "It comes as a devastating blow after recent surveys indicated wildlife populations were beginning to recover from over a decade of civil war, due to the commitment and dedication of the rangers. They need our support."

The decimation of the hippo population in the Congo prompted the World Conservation to put the species on the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species. The organization estimates the species has 30 percent in the past three decades, due to poaching and habitat loss.

Biologists estimate about 125,000 hippos remain in the wild, spread across 29 African countries. Zambia holds the largest population, a group of some 40,000.

Conservations warn that thee decline of the Virunga hippo population is not just bad news for the species. They contend it has also adversely affected the situation of local people, especially the thousands of fishermen living around Lake Edward, within the park.

The lake is one of the most productive in the world, as hippo dung provides vital nutrients for fish. The dramatic fall of the hippo population has also resulted in a rapid decline of the lake's fish stocks, according to researchers with WWF.