As Go the Hippos...

  • Jun. 2nd, 2009 at 8:07 AM

Now, on one side of the lake are fighters from one of the two rebel groups, a band of Hutus from Rwanda. They shoot elephants, hack off the tusks, leave the mutilated carcasses to scavengers, and swap the ivory for munitions. But as the elephants dwindle, the rebels have turned increasingly to tilapia and catfish for their food and income, plundering the lake’s rivulets—spawning ground long off-limits to village fishermen.

On the other side, members of a local militia called PARECO are slaughtering hippos. They sell the teeth as ivory and the flesh as prized bush meat. In the 1970s, some 29,000 hippos lived in the park. By the end of 2006, their numbers had plummeted to only a few hundred—that year, militia fighters massacred thousands. The lake water, as in the biblical plague, washed the shore red.

The killings have had an unanticipated side effect. A hippo’s defecation feeds the plankton that feed the larvae that become the fish on which the villagers rely. A single pachyderm’s 60 pounds of daily dung delivers a gargantuan bacterial feast; now, even isolated killings of the animals wreak havoc on the fragile geometry of the lake ecosystem.