Hippos at a national park in Congo's war-torn east could be wiped out by the end of the year unless action is taken to stop rebel militia slaughtering them for their meat and ivory, conservationists said.
NAIROBI -- Hippos at a national park in Congo's war-torn east could be wiped out by the end of the year unless action is taken to stop rebel militia slaughtering them for their meat and ivory, conservationists said.
Experts say more than 400 hippos have been killed by Mai Mai fighters in the last two weeks in Virunga National Park, which once boasted Africa's greatest concentration of the beasts.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said a recent survey found less than 900 hippos remaining in the remote jungle park, compared with 22,000 recorded there in 1988.
"If the killing continues at its current rate, ZSL field workers fear there will be no hippos left in many parts of the national park by Christmas," ZSL said in a report seen by Reuters on Friday.
So many had been killed, it said, that hippo meat was now sold illegally in local markets for as little as $0.20 per kilo.
ZSL, which has worked in the park for five years, said the rebels were also killing buffalo and elephants -- and had attacked game rangers and their families.
"This is one of the biggest challenges the park rangers have had to face since the war," said Lyndsay Gale, the charity's Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme Coordinator.
"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."
ZSL appealed for funds to boost ranger salaries -- which it already contributes to -- and for extra anti-poaching training.
Virunga, on Democratic Republic of Congo's border with Rwanda, is Africa's oldest national park and once boasted the highest density of large mammals in the world.
But in the last 10 years it has also been at the heart of two wars, during which poaching spiralled out of control and a plethora of national armies and rebel groups fought over territory and natural resources.
Rwanda's 1994 genocide led to an influx of refugees and militia fighters in the area, followed by DRC's 1998-2003 war, which sucked in foreign forces and resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe that killed some 4 million people.