The last remaining hippos in eastern Congo are facing extinction and could be wiped out in many parts of a national park by the end of the year if intense poaching by hungry militiamen continues, conservationists said.
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 concentrations, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said in a statement posted on its Web site on Saturday.
A recent survey sponsored by the conservation group showed there were fewer than 900 hippos left in the park -- "a dramatic decline from the 22,000 recorded there in 1988," the statement said.
"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," the group said.
The so-called Mai-Mai militia, a ragtag group of impoverished Congolese fighters with varying loyalties who operate across huge swaths of eastern Congo, set up a base in the park earlier this month, ZSL said.
"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.
"The main cause is the area's use as a base for ... the Mai-Mai, who eat and sell hippo meat and ivory found in the hippos' canine teeth. The group has also attacked a number of conservation rangers and their families," the group said.