'Animals are for us to eat'

Former poacher Guillaume Kasereka once used a rusty Russian-made rocket launcher to kill hippos for meat in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) forests. These days, he says, the competition is too fierce—and the prey too scarce.

The world’s largest hippo population is being decimated by poaching, conservation officials in the DRC say. Increasingly, locals in the lawless eastern DRC say, the poachers are from among the thousands of Hutu rebels who fled to the eastern DRC in 1994 after killing Tutsis in the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
The remnants of Congolese militias who once fought over the region also are poaching.

Only about 800 hippos remain in the north-eastern DRC’s Virunga National Park, down from 29 000 in the mid-1970s, according to Walter Dzeidzic, of the WWF in the DRC. Dzeidzic said the hippo could soon be extinct in the Central African nation.

Rebels and militiamen hiding in Virunga’s lush, inaccessible interior kill hippos with automatic weapons, or even, according to Kasereka, by tossing dynamite into lakes. The dead hippos float to the surface along with hundreds of dead fish and are dragged ashore to be eaten or sold.

Further north in the park, villagers speak of a white mountain of hippo teeth amassed by hungry militiamen during years of poaching. The Hutu rebels and militiamen also sell hippo meat—a fully grown river hippo can weigh three tonnes, and its meat can fetch several thousands of dollars in village markets across the north-eastern DRC.

A stocky former Congolese militiaman, who recently left life in the bush, told a reporter he had killed 40 hippos with his comrades in the past three years.

He said they were hungry and needed money. 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.

Sought-after delicacy

Locals say hippo meat usually comes to village markets unannounced. Its sale is illegal and the meat is expensive by local standards, but the delicacy disappears within a few hours.

“Sometimes we hear of hippopotamus meat in the village market,” said Agustin Ndimu, a wildlife officer with the WWF who has been tracking the hippo-meat trade for the past year. “But even an hour later, the meat is all sold and there is no trace to follow.”

A restaurant owner in the river town of Rutshuru, about 70km north of the city of Goma, said with regret she had none when a reporter asked, but 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 green bean farmer, wearing torn rags and holding a long machete. “But I don’t go near them now. They belong to the enemies.”

Virunga National Park is home to as many as 5 000 Rwandan Hutu rebels that villagers simply refer to as “the enemies”. The Hutu rebels are notorious for looting and raping Congolese villagers.

Holding open a worn and heavily lined palm, his fingers silhouetted against the sky, Mazakongo said: “That much meat is $5.” He said a fistful of hippo meat normally feeds him for three or four days.

Some of the villagers who relish the meat don’t seem to draw a link between their appetites and dwindling supplies.

“I know killing a hippo is illegal, but I don’t know why,” said Kiyana Zirimagawabo (55), wearing green flip-flops, and a cowboy hat over his graying hair. “Animals are for us to eat.”—Sapa-AP

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