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Wartime poaching has decimated Congo's hippo population

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Congo—Thirty years ago, nearly 30,000 hippos roamed the grasslands and waded in the lakes of this rugged park in eastern Congo. Today, fewer than 900 remain.

Unbridled poaching by militiamen who pitched up here during the wars of the past decade, and who until recently ruled much of the park by the gun, has decimated the hippo population and threatens to upset the area's delicate ecosystem.

The park's wildlife was easy prey—especially the hippos, which tend to linger near water and are vulnerable to traps. Poachers eat the hippo meat and sell it in local villages, sometimes threatening shopkeepers who are reluctant to trade in the illicit meat. It fetches $2.50 a pound—twice the price of beef—and is a delicacy, often disappearing from markets within hours of arriving.

The extent of the devastation in Virunga National Park is becoming clear following the end of a five-year civil war in 2003 and the weakening of the militias. Hundreds of unpaid, unarmed rangers who couldn't venture outside their compounds during the fighting are now taking stock of the park.

Though the elephant and bird populations also have dropped, the hippos are the park's most dramatic loss. Conservation officials fear that Congo's hippo population—once the world's largest—might never regain its prewar size.

Park rangers blame heavily armed Hutu rebels from Rwanda, including some men who fled here after conducting the genocide, for most of the hippo poaching.

"They have steel traps, rocket launchers, AK-47s, everything," said Richard Paluku Katsala, a ranger in the park's troubled Rwindi section, where the hippos were concentrated.

"The hippo was an ideal animal for many of the armed groups, and it happened to live in the most dangerous and difficult part of the park to secure," said Guy Debonnet, a program specialist with the UNESCO World Heritage Center in Paris, which has listed the park as a World Heritage Site and has provided emergency assistance since 2000.

The loss of the hippos could produce ripple effects for other species, Debonnet said. Their grazing keeps the grass low, making Virunga an important stop for migratory birds. And hippo dung provides important nutrients for fish, especially in Lake Edward, where thousands of fishermen make their living. Already, they say, the lake's fish stocks are low.

"The fish population might just crash as a result of this," Debonnet said.

Other animals in the park fared better. Hundreds of elephants escaped eastward into Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, another protected area. The endangered mountain gorilla, the region's pre-eminent wildlife attraction, lives mostly in preserves and enjoys special care from governments that know the animal's value for tourism.

With hopes for peace rising after this week's constitutional referendum, the first democratic vote in Congo in more than 40 years, guards say conditions in the park are improving. Last month, Congolese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers destroyed several rebel camps in the biggest military operation in the park since the end of the war.

But a few thousand militiamen remain, and the arrival of the Congolese army may not solve the problem. The soldiers are poorly paid, if at all, and could resort to poaching to feed themselves.

"For the moment, the army has a certain respect for the animals," said Agustin Ndimu of the provincial office of the Worldwide Fund for the Conservation of Nature. "That could change in the time to come."

Meanwhile, Ndimu said, there isn't much that can be done to resurrect the hippo population but try to protect those that are left—and wait. It could take decades, he said, if it happens at all.

The loss of the large, lumbering but relatively rare creatures marks the latest page in a long history of plunder in this vast, resource-rich country, which straddles some of the world's most productive mines and farmland.

Starting in the late 19th century, Belgium's King Leopold II treated colonial Congo as his personal treasure chest. Later, after independence in 1960, the country's gold, diamonds and timber became the exclusive currency of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who held power for 32 years.

Under Mobutu, Virunga rose to prominence. As Africa's oldest national park—a designation it earned in 1925—the 3,100-square-mile site boasts some of the world's greatest biodiversity, with more than 900 bird and mammal species spread across dramatic mountain peaks, arid savannahs, thick forests and swamplands.

Virunga, which takes its name from the Swahili word for volcano, was a source of pride for Mobutu, who had a private camp here where he often brought foreign dignitaries for fishing trips. But beginning in the 1980s, as his kleptocratic rule bankrupted the country, then called Zaire, the condition of the park deteriorated.

The hippos and other wild animals first came under attack in 1994, when thousands of refugees from the genocide in neighboring Rwanda arrived in the park. Four years later, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo after rebel groups they supported launched a civil war, plunging the country's remote east—including Virunga—into bloody anarchy.

Since then, Virunga has been home to thousands of soldiers and armed rebels from a dizzying assortment of countries and ethnic groups, who staked out sections of the park where they enjoyed virtual autonomy—and where attacks on rangers were most common.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CONGO-HIPPOS

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