The global conservation body, the World Wide Fund for Nature, says decades of indiscriminate poaching of hippopotamus in eastern Congo Kinshasa is having a severe impact on the region's freshwater ecosystem and the lives of tens of thousands of people who live there.
Three decades ago, as many as 30,000 hippos could be found in the rivers and grasslands within the boundaries of Virunga National Park in eastern Congo Kinshasa. It was the biggest concentration of these giant animals in the world.
But the World Wide Fund says two recent surveys, conducted in March and August of this year, show 95 percent of Virunga's hippos have since been wiped out. Just 1,300 remain in the park.
Wildlife conservationists had not had much access to the 800,000 hectare park since factional fighting erupted in the area in 1994. Conservationists acknowledge that even then, Virunga's hippo population was suffering, having declined to less than 10,000.
But WWF program coordinator for east Africa Marc Languy says the new census figure of 1,300 still came as a shock. "The main cause is poaching by poachers with automatic rifles. Hippos are killed en masse mainly for ivory, but also for meat," he said.
In recent years, hippo meat has become a delicacy in parts of central Africa. And with the current worldwide ban on the trade in elephant ivory, demand has surged for hippo teeth, which can grow as long as 70 centimeters and are considered valuable ivory substitutes.
Indiscriminate hippo poaching may not be unique to Congo Kinshasa. In neighboring Burundi, a recent census found that two-thirds of the country's hippo population has disappeared in the past five years.
WWF warns the loss of hippo populations could have catastrophic consequences for the region's delicate freshwater ecosystem.
Large numbers of hippos are needed to add hundreds of tons of vital nutrients into rivers and lakes on a daily basis. The nutrients are essential for maintaining adequate fish stock.
"A hippo can eat up to 60 kilos a day. So when they release their dung in the river, this provides the basis for the food chain for these rivers and lakes and provides a key nutrient for fish. And fish is important, not only for wildlife, but also for humans," said Mr. Languy.
More than 20,000 people living around the park depend on fish for their livelihood. Mr. Languy said many fishermen around Lake Edward, which lies within Virunga park, are already reporting that they can no longer find enough fish to eat, let alone sell.
WWF says the recent formation of a transitional government in war-torn Congo Kinshasa is raising hopes that the country can begin instituting proper planning and management of its natural resources.
The organization says unless authorities can stop indiscriminate poaching, one of Congo's most valuable resources, the hippo, will soon be gone for good.