Citizen science leads to better protection of hippos in DR Congo

The hippo population in the Virungapark in DR Congo is under severe pressure. Their numbers are drastically declining since rebel groups kill the animals to sell the bushmeat. Now that local fishermen systematically map hippo poaching incidents, the park authority has better information to take effective action against poaching. The number of hippos killed has quickly been reduced from one per week to one per month.

Problem

Until the mid-1970s, Virunga National Park in DR Congo harboured the largest population of hippos in the world. Years of war and conflict have drastically reduced the population: from nearly 30,000 in 1974 to fewer than 1,000 in 2005, towards the end of the Congolese civil war. In the decade after the war, the number of hippos increased steadily: from 2015 to 2018 their population was around 2,500.

Now that the park authority is preventing illegal fishing on Lake Edward, rebel groups enrich themselves by poaching hippos to sell their meat. In only one year’s time, poaching has almost halved the number of hippos.

Most of the poaching takes place in the middle of the night, near the settlements of rebel groups or the army. Residents of the fishing communities around the lake regularly stumbled upon the bloody carcasses in the morning. In the area southwest of Lake Edward, each week at least one hippo was killed for its meat in the period from May to July 2019.

Approach

To effectively protect the hippo population, the park authority needed more information on where and when poaching takes place. To map that out, we equipped local partner organizations with mobile phones and trained them in recording poaching incidents with a monitoring app. Our partners photograph the hippo carcasses, the app records the GPS coordinates. The information is stored in a central online database which is analyzed by the park authority on a weekly basis.

By analyzing the collected data, we uncover the locations where most of the poaching takes place, in which way and for what purpose. These insights help the park authority to take more effective action against poaching. In addition, the collected data serves as evidence when poachers are brought to court.

Result

Thanks to the data collected by our partners, the park authority has given top priority to the protection of hippos. It also adjusted its strategy based on the information about where and when the poaching takes place. Now more patrols are taking place at the locations with the highest numbers of poaching incidents and park rangers started patrolling at night, at times when most poaching takes place.

As a result, the hippos in Virunga National Park are better protected. Since the park authority receives the latest information about poaching from our partners, the number of hippos killed in the area southwest of Lake Edward has been reduced from one per week to one per month.

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