Virunga’s hippos show signs of recovery

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A paper published last week in ‘Suiform Soundings’, a newsletter published by the IUCN’s Pigs, Peccaries, and Hippos Specialist Group states that the hippopotamus (hippo/s) numbers in Virunga National Park and starting to recover.

The paper follows recent research undertaken by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Hippo numbers in Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have been decimated over the past few decades by a mixture of poaching and habitat loss.

 

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Hippopotamus female with young © Allan Archer – talk: Wildlife

 

Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage which straddles the border of Uganda and Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the oldest and most biologically diverse protected area on the African continent. The park’s 7800 square kilometers (3000 square miles) includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.

Collaboration has assisted the increase

Hippopotamus yawning – © A Plumptre – WCS

In the 1970s, the National Park used to contain Africa’s largest known hippo population with especially large groups found in both the Rwindi and Rutshuru rivers. However, numbers plummeted as a result of poaching during the three decades of armed conflict, human development and agriculture, as is the case with declines in other large mammals in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hippo numbers in the region have dropped from a high of nearly 30,000 in the early 1970s to 2,400 in 2015, a reduction of around 90%. The researchers estimate that the current population of hippos in the park represents only 11 percent of the original 1950s population. However, whilst numbers are still critically low they have shown an increase on previous years.

The increase in hippos is likely the result of increased enforcement in Virunga National Park’s portion of Lake Edward and nearby river systems and collaboration between fishermen and park authorities in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

“This recent survey has shown that the Ishasha River on the border with Uganda is now very important for their conservation and shows that transboundary conservation efforts are succeeding there,” stated Andrew Plumptre, WCS senior scientist and co-author of the report.

Continued effort required

The authors of the study, Deo Kujirakwinja, P. Shamavu, Andrew Plumptre, and E. Muhindo of WCS; and J.D. Wathaut and E. de Merode of the ICCN have recommended that in addition to strengthening ongoing conservation initiatives, a number of additional conservation measures should be considered, including:

  • Joint surveys of hippos between DRC and Uganda so that the hippo population of the landscape is better known and not double reported by both countries;
  • Identifying current bushmeat routes and target markets to minimize poaching of hippos in the region;
  • Involving fishermen in hippo monitoring by encouraging reporting of key hippo pods that they may encounter;
  • Maintaining regular monitoring of hippos in key hippo regions (Ishasha, Semliki and Lake Edward South); and
  • Regular counts and increased protection activities which are key for large mammal persistence in conflict and post conflict regions.

WCS Scientist Deo Kujirakwinja, the lead author of the paper, commented, “The hippo is one of Africa’s iconic species, one that is becoming increasingly threatened by hunting and other factors. Our findings that hippos are on the increase is encouraging and evidence that efforts to protect hippos and other species are working. “

 

Hippopotamus gathered in pool – © D. Kujirakwinja – WCS

 

The hippo is Africa’s third largest mammal and have been found to be related to whales. They can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 4,400 pounds. They are nocturnal herbivores which congregate, sometimes in large numbers, in pools, rivers, and lakes where they can stay submerged for up to six minutes. They remain a threatened species across their range in sub-Saharan Africa and are listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List.

 

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