As Go the Hippos …

Under the weight of Congo’s civil war, an ecosystem collapses.

On the blue-gray waters of Lake Edward, where the eastern fringe of Congo blends into Uganda, Byanmongo Matabishi, a fisherman from the Congolese village of Vitshumbi, stands on a pirogue and shakes his head.

“Nothing,” he says, glancing into the empty nets in the hull. “Nothing.”

Three days on the lake, and he has no fish to show for it.

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Video: "Congo's Other War"

Delphine Schrank visits the empty lakes and scattered elephant bones left behind by the DRC's ongoing violence.

By now, the internecine wars of eastern Congo have acquired a haunting familiarity: rebels plunder the country’s natural riches, and the looting feeds a cycle of impoverishment, corruption, and violence. But in Vitshumbi, more-elemental changes have been complicating the pattern. The hippopotamuses started falling first. Then the elephants. And now the fish are disappearing, too. An ecosystem seems to be unraveling.

I traveled to Vitshumbi by SUV last fall, with three park rangers and an environmental activist, through Virunga National Park. The park, Africa’s most biodiverse, traverses more than 3,000 square miles of fire-haloed volcanoes and jungled hills before fanning into savanna at Lake Edward. We braked for baboons, two elephants, and a herd of antelope. Beyond stretched the Great Rift Valley, home to some of the earliest remains of humans.

As we drove, Congolese soldiers—ostensibly separating a patchwork of rebel and militia camps—limped by in unlaced boots, rifles slapping against their backs. A trickle of women carried bags of charcoal burned illicitly from Virunga’s hardwood trees. Others walked by in a daze, loaded with mattresses, babies, and plastic jugs. They were fleeing the mortar fire that boomed between the hills—an outbreak of war that pitted two rival rebel groups against a coalition of the Congolese army, at least half a dozen local militias, and the Rwandan military.

When we reached Vitshumbi, fishermen idled among boats in the soft mud of the lakeshore. More than a decade ago, European research groups issued environmental reports, calibrating the ratio of fishermen to fish that would be needed to sustain the lake’s ecology. A fisherman’s license became his badge of honor, suggesting that he was part master, part guardian of the lake. But the report didn’t account for the war.

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.

There is a further complication. Waves of Congolese refugees have been settling nearby since 2005. At night, they pour onto the lake in numbers far greater than the village’s official cap of 400 boats, sometimes in stolen pirogues. They use forbidden nets to clear the leftover life from the lake.

At one of several UN-run camps near Lake Edward, refugees from the fighting sell fish, fried dough, and firewood.
Image credit: Delphine Schrank

And so the villagers have been forced to eat the small, bony fish that they once would have tossed back into the water as trash.

“It’s hard, it’s true,” says Joseph Casseraga, a fisherman who has worked on the lake for more than 20 years. “But there is nothing else to do.” Beside a snarl of recently seized illegal nets, four of his six children doodle in the dust with sticks.

As we leave the village, we see two men weaving through the tall grasses from the direction of the Rwandan Hutu camp. One strains under a large, lumpy sack.

“Thieves!” shouts one of the park rangers in our car. The two men run. Our SUV chases them toward a tarp, where two soldiers man a checkpoint between the rebel camp and the village.

The car doors fling open, and the rangers jump out and lunge at the thieves, while the soldiers leap to their feet. Amid shouts and scuffling, the sack opens, and stolen fish spill all over their wiry bearer. Covered in slime, the pirate fisherman slumps on the ground. A ranger grabs the other man, who stands limp and silent. The environmental activist fires questions at the two, demanding to know why they were fishing without licenses.

“Because,” the wiry man says, “we were hungry.”