John Lukas is president of the Okapi Conservation Project and the International Rhino Foundation, Conservation and Science Manager for the Jacksonville Zoo, and is a co-founder of WCN)
Community Conservation is seen as a necessary component of effective conservation projects across Africa. It is often stated that ‘people are the problem, but also the solution’ to the devastating impact of human activities on wildlife and natural habitats. The concern raised by many donors on how you measure the effectiveness of supporting communities and addressing their quality of life needs has on the protection of habitat and reducing pressures on wildlife populations is very difficult to quantify and subject to much debate.
The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) has a wide-reaching community assistance program that includes support of schools, health clinics, women’s groups, farmers, soccer teams and local development projects such as building clean water sources.
Why do we do this? Basically, to create dialogue with community members about how they can cooperate with Reserve regulations and at the same time, improve the sustainability of their food sources, improve the delivery of health care and education, all to lessen their impact on forest resources that okapi need to survive.
We have anecdotal evidence that communities we invest in are more cooperative and are better stewards of their land and culture. This impact is hard to measure as many variables are involved, but it is easy to imagine what would happen to the forest if we were not working with the communities; we just need to look east to North Kivu province where large areas have been deforested and converted to large scale agriculture.
When I was in DR Congo last July, there was an incident at Nazzaro on the eastern border of the Reserve that showed an important reason to support communities and keep lines of communication open between community leaders, conservation project staff and ICCN rangers. An ICCN-UNESCO delegation of OCP Staff, WCS Staff, ICCN rangers led by the Mambasa District Administrator, was meeting with community leaders in Nduye to enhance collaboration between all parties in implementing peace and security initiatives funded by the UN.
OCP has been working directly with the Walese Karo community since 1994 through the establishment of the Bukulani and Nduye ICCN patrol posts, initiating soya-bean cultivation to help children in dispensaries, improving 4 water sources, assisting the women’s group in Nduye in gardening and tailoring and providing school supplies to primary and secondary schools.
While the delegation was preparing to travel back to Mambasa on the lone dirt track through the forest, farther down the road, a band of eight poachers armed with AK-47s set up an ambush. They had positioned themselves on both sides of the road along the forest edge ready to open fire on the partner delegation as they passed on their motorcycles at a very low rate of speed due to the poor road conditions. As the poachers were waiting in ambush, local people on foot and motorbikes were allowed to pass by without harm. Several passersby notified their chief about what they had seen, and he sent word to the delegation, who were ready to depart, about the location of a possible ambush. The chief risked serious reprisals from the poachers and put his village in danger because he valued the people in the delegation and appreciated what they had done to make life better for his community members.
Once informed about the ambush, ICCN rangers hiked through the forest and came up behind where the poachers had positioned themselves, surprising them. Not unforeseen, a shoot-out ensued, and one poacher was killed and the rest fled into the forest. No rangers were injured. The delegation then passed, picked up the rangers and made it safely to Mambasa.
Lives were saved because the community valued its conservation partners. These were not ordinary lives. They were dynamic people working diligently to conserve okapi – all are highly skilled and competent advocates for conservation and communities that are critical to the functioning of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. They would be hard to replace in present day DRC. These dedicated conservationists are alive today because we invested in the communities and that investment really paid off by protecting our human capital that drives our programs to conserve okapi and the bountiful diversity of the Ituri Forest for all human kind.
Community assistance is often shown as a dotted line supporting conservation objectives, but in this case, it was a solid line from community members to conservation agents that saved the lives of dedicated Congolese conservationists along a lonely forest.