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Poachers use weapons of war to wipe out hippo population

The world's largest hippopotamus population is being destroyed by poaching, conservation officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo say. Only about 800 remain in Virunga National Park, in the north-east, down from 29,000 in the mid-1970s, said Walter Dzeidzic of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Congo.

Virunga is home to as many as 5,000 Rwandan Hutu rebels, who villagers call "the enemies". Many fled Rwanda in 1994 after contributing to the genocide. They kill the hippos with automatic weapons, or even by tossing dynamite into lakes. The dead animals float to the surface along with hundreds of dead fish.

Further north in the park, villagers speak of a white mountain of hippo teeth amassed by hungry militiamen. A fully grown beast can weigh three tons, and its meat can fetch thousands of dollars in village markets across north-eastern Congo.

A stocky former Congolese militiaman, who recently gave up life in the bush, said that he had killed 40 hippos with his comrades in the past three years. They were hungry and needed money, he said.

But noting how few hippos were left, he acknowledged they might have killed too many. He asked that his name not be used, fearing the wrath of his comrades for defecting from his militia.

A restaurant owner in the river town of Rutshuru, about 70km north of the city of Goma, said with regret that she had no hippo meat to sell when a reporter asked, but added that she sold it when it was available. She refused to give her name because she knew it was illegal to serve the meat.

"I like eating hippos, even though the meat is tough," said Mashuri Mazakongo, a 44-year-old bean farmer. "But I don't go near them now. They belong to the enemies."