Ten African countries have proposed that hippopotamus be given the highest protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) official list of endangered animals.
Hippos are already listed as an appendix II species, which means they are not necessarily threatened with extinction but could become so if their trade is not regulated.
Activists from the 10 countries want hippos to be reclassified as ‘appendix I’, the highest level, which would make it completely illegal to trade in hippo body parts and ivory.
A species only becomes officially ‘endangered’ when the CITES says so. It will be known whether hippos will be classified as endangered or not until the next CITES meeting in Panama in November.
Native to Africa, hippopotamuses are huge, water-loving animals. They are also among the largest and dangerous land mammals on the planet.
The current status of the global hippo population is so precarious. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that between 115,000 and 130,000 common hippos remain in the wild thus have become 20 percent fewer than there were in 1990.
Hippos are especially vulnerable to overexploitation due to their long gestation periods of eight months, and females not reaching sexual maturity until nine or 10 years.
The ivory trade also encourages killing hippos because ivory can be found in their teeth, while other hippo body parts are also traded for high prices.
77,579 hippo parts and products were legally traded from 2009 to 2018, according to The Guardian.
On top of all that, climate change is reducing hippos’ access to fresh water and destroying their habitats.
In 2016, IUCN classified hippos as vulnerable to extinction on its red list with local declines, particularly in west Africa, raising fears about the survival of the species in some of the 38 African countries where it is found.
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The 2016 IUCN Red List assessment states, “the conservation status of Hippos remains precarious and the need for direct conservation action to protect Hippos and Hippo habitat across their range is a priority.”
In Rwanda, hippos are not highly threatened, according to Telesphore Ngoga, Conservation Analyst at Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
He noted that the issues they are facing relates to reduction of wetlands that hold fresh water where they inhabit as people use them for other purposes like farming, adding that hippos sometimes sneak to the farms of the people which can result in human-wildlife conflict.
He recognises that hippos are threatened in different countries hence sees a need to enforce conservation efforts as a good move.
“We are happy that we managed to conserve our hippos but if the species can be added on the list of endangered species that will drive enforcement regarding their conservation,” he said.
Although the number of hippos in Rwanda is still unknown, Ngoga is aware that the species is found in Akagera National Park, Nyabarongo and Akanyaru wetlands as well as Ruhwa River in Rusizi District.
In case of human-wildlife conflict, Rwanda has established the Special Grant Fund to pay compensation fees to the communities around the parks and lakes whose properties are destroyed by wild animals or individuals who are wounded or whose relatives have been killed by the same animals.