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Because Africa's scarcest natural resource is water, environmentalists say the hippo, or "river horse" (in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where poachers have devastated hippo populations), will increasingly come into conflict with people. (Frans Lanting)

Hippo Haven

An idealistic married couple defy poachers and police in strife-torn Zimbabwe to protect a threatened herd of placid pachyderms

Because hippos live in fresh water, they are “in the cross hairs of conflict,” says biologist Rebecca Lewison, head of the World Conservation Union’s hippo research group. “Fresh water is probably the most valuable and limited resource in Africa.” Agricultural irrigation systems and other development have depleted hippos’—and other animals’—wetland, river and lake habitats. And the expansion of waterside farms, which hippos often raid, has increased the risk that the animals will tangle with people.

In countries beset by civil unrest, where people are hungry and desperate, hippos are poached for their meat; one hippo yields about a ton of it. Some are killed for their tusk-like teeth, which can grow up to a foot or longer. (Though smaller than elephant tusks, hippo tusks don’t yellow with age. One of George Washington’s sets of false teeth was carved from hippo ivory.)

Hippos once roamed over most of Africa except the Sahara. Today they can be found in 29 African countries. (The extremely rare pygmy hippopotamus, a related species, is found in only a few West African forests.) A decade ago there were about 160,000 hippos in Africa, but the population has dwindled to between 125,000 and 148,000 today, according to the World Conservation Union. The United Nations is about to list the hippopotamus as a “vulnerable” species.

The most dramatic losses have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where civil war and militia rampages, with subsequent disease and starvation, have killed an estimated three million people in the past decade. Hippos are reportedly being killed by local militia, poachers, government soldiers and Hutu refugees who fled neighboring Rwanda after participating in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis. In 1974, it was estimated that about 29,000 hippos lived in DRC’s Virunga National Park. An aerial survey conducted this past August by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature found only 887 remaining.

The hippo has long fascinated me as one of nature’s most misunderstood, even paradoxical, creatures: a terrestrial mammal that spends most of its time in water, a two-ton mass that can sprint faster than a person, a seemingly placid oaf that guards its family with fierce cunning. So I went to Kenya, where a stable government has taken pains to protect the animal, to see large numbers of hippos up close. I went to Zimbabwe, in contrast, to get a feel for the impact of civil strife on this extraordinary animal.

Because Zimbabwe rarely grants visas to foreign journalists, I traveled there as a tourist and did my reporting without government permission. I entered through Bulawayo, a southern city in the homeland of the Ndebele tribe. The Ndebele people are traditional rivals of the Shona, Mugabe’s tribe. Most street life in Africa is boisterous, but the streets of Bulawayo are subdued, the result of Mugabe’s recent crackdown. People walk with heads down, as if trying not to attract attention. At gas stations cars line up for fuel, sometimes for weeks.

Zimbabwe is in trouble. It suffers 70 percent unemployment, mass poverty, annual inflation as high as 600 percent and widespread hunger. Over the past ten years, life expectancy has dropped from 63 to 39 years of age, largely due to AIDS (one quarter of the population is infected with HIV) and malnutrition. Mugabe, a Marxist, has ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, following 20 years of guerrilla war to overthrow Ian Smith’s white-led government of what was then called Rhodesia. According to Amnesty International, Mugabe has rigged elections to stay in power, and he has jailed, tortured and murdered opponents. Since March 2005, when Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party won a national election described by Amnesty International as taking place in a “climate of intimidation and harassment,” conditions have deteriorated markedly in those parts of the country that voted for Mugabe’s opponents. His “Youth Brigades”—young thugs outfitted as paramilitary groups—have destroyed streetmarkets and bulldozed squatter camps in a campaign Mugabe named Operation Murambatsvina, a Shona term meaning “drive out the rubbish.” AU.N. report estimates that the campaign has left 700,000 of the country’s 13 million people jobless, homeless or both.

In 2000, Zimbabwe was Africa’s second most robust economy after South Africa, but then Mugabe began appropriating farmland and giving it to friends and veterans of the 1970s guerrilla wars. Most of the new landowners—including the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who grabbed two farms—had no experience in large-scale farming, and so most farms have fallen fallow or are used for subsistence living.

At the Savé Valley Conservancy, originally formed in 1991 as a sanctuary for black rhinos, people belonging to the clan of a veteran named Robert Mamungaere are squatting on undeveloped land in and around the conservancy. They have cleared forests and built huts and fences. They’ve started killing wild animals. And they mean business.

Jean-Roger Paolillo tries to keep the poachers away from the hippos. “I patrol our land every day, removing any snares I find and shooting the poachers’ hunting dogs if I see them. I hate doing that, but I have to protect the wild animals. The invaders have retaliated by cutting our phone lines four times and twice surrounding our house and threatening to burn it down.”

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