Congo Hippos Nearly Wiped Out by Poaching

The last remaining hippos in eastern Congo face extinction and could be wiped out in many parts of a national park by the end of the year due to intense poaching by militiamen, conservationists said Saturday.

The first two weeks of this month alone saw more than 400 hippos slaughtered in lawless Virunga National Park, which was once home to one of Central Africa's greatest hippopotamus populations, the Zoological Society of London said in a statement posted on its Web site.

A recent survey sponsored by the conservation group showed fewer than 900 hippos were left in the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. That was "a dramatic decline from the 22,000 recorded there in 1988," the statement said.

The group expressed concern that "there will be no hippos left in many parts of the national park by Christmas" if the killing continues at its current rate.

The so-called Mai-Mai militia, a ragtag group of impoverished fighters with varying loyalties who operate across huge swaths of eastern Congo, set up a base in the park earlier this month, according to the society.

"During the last fortnight alone, more than 400 hippos have been slaughtered as well as a number of buffalo, elephants and other animals," ZSL said.

It blamed the Mai-Mai militia, saying the rebels eat and sell hippo meat and ivory, found in the hippos' canine teeth. The fighters also have attacked a number of conservation rangers and their families, the conservationists said.

Government soldiers, as well as Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda's 1994 genocide and took refuge in the dense forests of eastern Congo, also have been blamed for killing hippos and other wildlife in parks around the country.

A 1998-2002 war that drew armies from six countries into Congo is over, but the eastern part of the country remains in turmoil.