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Poaching has brought the hippopotamus population in Democratic Republic of Congo to within a few months of extinction, wildlife experts say.<br><br><br><br>
Researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) say the population has halved in the last two weeks.<br><br><br><br>
They say the Mai Mai militia has set up camp in Virunga National Park and catches the animals for meat and ivory.<br><br><br><br>
The hippo entered the Red List of Threatened Species this year, and is declining in many parts of Africa.<br><br><br><br>
ZSL says the militia killed hundreds of hippos in a two week period, and numbers now are below 400.<br><br><br><br>
Its scientists warn the entire population may disappear before the end of the year without urgent action.<br><br><br><br>
Big challenge<br><br><br><br><br><br>
Twenty years ago there were about 22,000 hippos in Virunga Park, but the country's civil war brought numbers crashing down.<br><br><br><br>
Its location on the border with Uganda and Rwanda has made it prone to incursions. Rwandan rebels fled to the area after the 1994 genocide.<br><br><br><br>
The situation had stabilised after campaigns by Congolese and UN troops to oust the rebels and the establishment of an elite ranger corps within the park.<br><br><br><br>
Some of these rangers have reportedly been attacked by the Mai Mai group.<br><br><br><br>
ZSL's Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme Coordinator, Lyndsay Gale, who spends about half of her time in Virunga, said: "This is one of the biggest challenges the park rangers have had to face since the war.<br><br><br><br>
Battle for Virunga's wildlife<br><br>
"It comes as a devastating blow after recent surveys indicated wildlife populations were beginning to recover from over a decade of civil war."<br><br><br><br>
As well as hippos, the militia is also hunting buffalo and elephant, ZSL reports. Ivory taken from elephant tusks and hippo teeth is sold for profit.<br><br><br><br>
The society is appealing for more funds to go into its work with local conservation groups and rangers.<br><br><br><br>
There are thought to be about 130,000 hippopotamus in Africa, with Zambia holding the biggest population.<br><br><br><br>
But a continent-wide decline of about 30% in 30 years brought its inclusion on this year's Red List as a species vulnerable to extinction.<br><br><br><br><br><br><br><br><img alt="" class="inlineimg" src="/images/smilies/sad.gif" style="border:0px solid;" title=":(">
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