Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Congolese rangers make a last stand

By Xan Rice  /  THE GUARDIAN , VITSHUMBI, THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Pictures taken by the Congolese organization, Innovation for the Development and the Protection of the Environment, show an elephant, top, killed by Congolese soldiers in Vitchumbi, Goma, and a hippo killed by Mai Mai rebels in Bichumbi, Democratic Republic of Congo.

PHOTO: AFP

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.

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