Silence. Even a pair of fish eagles seemed stunned into quietude as they peered across the blank sheet of gray-green water. There should have been dozens of pairs of pink ears poking above the surface of the bay, dustbin-size mouths bursting open into nature's most famous yawn, grunts and splashes. Nothing.
Among the reeds on the lakeshore lay a clue as to why. Aloma Majoro, a 35-year-old game ranger, pointed out a large patch of brown hippo skin, 2.5cm thick, rolled up like a carpet. There was a huge hipbone and a wooden wheelbarrow. The smell of death matched the eerily spare soundtrack.
In a frenzied slaughter earlier this month, Congolese rebels shot several hundred hippos on the southwestern shore of Lake Edward in Virunga national park, halving an already decimated population. Less than two decades ago, conservationists counted 22,875 hippos in the park, most of them in and around the lake. But an aerial count last week showed that what was once the world's most important hippo stock had been reduced to 315 animals.
The only thing standing in the way of their imminent extinction in the park is an elite unit of local rangers trained by a team of former British soldiers this year. Taking on the heavily armed rebels is a huge and highly risky task, but the rangers believe they can do it.
"It hurts us to see this killing," said Majoro, a small man with soft eyes and voice, who leads the 15-man First Troop of the Advance Force, which was deployed here last week. "We are going to protect the few hippos that are left."
Such brazen and systematic slaughter of large animals should never happen in a patrolled game reserve. But then Virunga is hardly a typical national park. It stretches along the eastern flank of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most beautiful, and insecure, areas in the world. There are gorillas and chimps, buffalo and elephants. And there are rebels.
Since Congo's unrest began in the early 1990s, numerous rebel groups have used the park as a hideout and plundered its resources for food and profit. Though the full-scale war officially ended in 2003, eastern Congo remains highly restive, and thousands of rebels still live in Virunga.
In the northern sector of the park there are Allied Democratic Force guerrillas from Uganda; in the south, Hutu Interahamwe rebels who fled Rwanda after the genocide. Lake Edward is the domain of a third rebel group, the Mai Mai, whose crude poaching methods indicate the size of the rangers' task.
Shortly before midday a fortnight ago, four motorized pirogues approached Vitshumbi, a fishing village on the southwestern shore of the lake. Each carried about 20 Mai Mai men armed with AK-47s. They told the worried villagers that they had not come to attack them but rather the hippos, which are valued for their meat and the ivory found in their long canine teeth. As the pirogues chugged from one pod of animals to the next the water boiled red.
"Ah Papa, it was terrible," said Fernand Kawembe, the head of police in Vitshumbi. "They were shooting all day."
The dead hippos were dragged to the shallows, hacked into large chunks and loaded into a second of fleet of pirogues. By nightfall, 74 hippos had been killed, according to Kawembe. There was so much hippo meat, described by locals as a cross between pork and beef, for sale in the lakeside villages that the price had sunk to under NT$6 a kilogram, less than a 10th of the cost of goat meat.
Until recently, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), which oversees the parks, had been largely powerless to halt the hippo poaching. Indeed, for the 640 rangers based in the park, merely staying alive was the biggest daily challenge.
Poorly paid, outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered, with a single off-road vehicle in each of the park's four main sectors covering more than 7,779km2, they are viewed by the rebels, and sometimes the military, as fair game. In the last decade, at least 97 rangers have died on active service in Virunga, making it perhaps the most dangerous park for wildlife wardens anywhere in the world.
But with funding from the EU, and strong support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Africa Conservation Fund, the ICCN's ranger force in Virunga is gaining teeth. Late last year 480 of the rangers received basic training from a five-man team of former military officers — four Britons and a South African.
Led by Conrad Thorpe, 41, a former marine in the British military, the trainers, who all speak Swahili, selected the 52 best rangers for a further three months' intensive instruction, including a tough physical regime and firing lessons, at a long-abandoned tourist lodge at Ishango, north of Vitshumbi. Divided into three small, mobile troops, the 49 men who passed the course were given uniforms, boots and weapons, including heavy machine guns.
"The concept is the use of minimum force while showing the ability to apply maximum force," said Emmanuel de Merode, of the Africa Conservation Fund.
The Advance Force rangers are meant to be deployed only in emergencies. But in Virunga, that means all the time. Last week one troop was in the northern sector of the park protecting civilians on the edge of the park from Ugandan rebels. Meanwhile, in the "gorilla sector," another unit was preparing to escort a group of regular rangers back to their posts, which were recently overrun by the renegade army general Laurent Nkunda.
Majoro's team arrived in Vitshumbi last Thursday. The local military commanders, some of whom are suspected of collusion with the poachers, were less than enthusiastic about the force's arrival.
When Major Mwenena, the powerfully built head of the "marines" in Vitshumbi heard that the rangers had been deployed to protect the animals rather than humans, he burst out laughing. "I finished US$10 credit on my mobile phone telling my superiors that the hippo slaughter was going on in front of us," he said. "The order came back: As long as people are not being killed, leave them [the Mai Mai] alone."'
He warned the rangers to "look left, look right, and look behind you, because you risk fighting this one on your own".
So far, being left alone has not been a problem for the Advance Force. On their first patrol, they arrested a man with a canoe full of hippo meat.
Robert Muir, project leader for the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Virunga, said that some of the Mai Mai rebels had already moved away from the lake by the weekend.
The rangers also caught several men who were fishing illegally at a spawning site, a desperate tactic that indicates how much damage the declining hippo population has already caused to the lake's ecosystem.
Hippo dung helps to sustain the lake's fish and, in recent years, as the hippo numbers have declined, so the tilapia catches have plummeted in size and number, causing fishermen to target previously protected areas.
"This is not just about the hippos," said Muir, a 30-year-old Briton. "It's the local people who are really going to suffer if they disappear."
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