In June 2012 a group of poachers and illegal gold miners, labeled as rebels, attacked the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and the nearby town of Epulu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A former elephant poacher who operates under the nom de guerre “Morgan” led the attack. The area remains unstable, but an outpouring of support has helped the Okapi Conservation Project work with the devastated community and begin to rebuild the Reserve.
Latest updates from John Lukas, President of the Okapi Conservation Project:
During my fifth trip to Epulu since the attack of June 2012, I sensed a new optimism in the community, as well as with our OCP staff. Over 95% of the residents of Epulu have returned to their homes, the primary school is overflowing with students, and the storekeepers are seeing more business as trucks traveling along the road increase in numbers. This is due in part to international companies working to repair the road from Beni to Kisangani, and partly as a result of improved security in the region.
Walking around I observed gardens being tended and children playing, while houses were undergoing repair. The constant background chatter of people going about their daily lives that is such a part of rural Africa had returned. Okapi Conservation Project educators and agronomists have been busy helping and guiding people as they re-establish their homes and livelihoods in the Reserve. In an effort to reduce the use of charcoal we purchase for our own cooking needs we have started to produce our own charcoal from fallen trees lying on the ground around the station. It is a simple process with dirt covering the burning logs for 7 to 10 days.
Monkeys were again numerous in the trees, and many gray parrots flew overhead talking loudly as they searched for fruit high up in the canopy. I witnessed hundreds of birds circling as they gathered by the river, as the breeding season for many species coincides with the start of the dry season (January) in the Ituri Forest. From my conversations with the rangers that patrol the forest, and OCP educators which monitor the impact of human activities on wildlife populations, okapi numbers appear to be stable (2012 estimate at ~3400), and there are no clear indications that okapi are a target of poachers, at this time.
President Kabila’s visit to this region in December helped to encourage the army to do more to overcome the current challenges with armed militias and poachers. Over 140 soldiers were deployed to Epulu to secure the area around the town and to accompany ICCN rangers on their patrols in the Reserve. With the last serious attack by Mai Mai Simba rebels occurring in June of 2013, it appears that government forces, working together aggressively with UN forces to protect the people and wildlife of this region, are making incremental progress in bringing long-term security and stability to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
The residents of Epulu and the staff of the Okapi Conservation Project asked me to send their greetings and deep appreciation for the generous support you provide which helps to improve livelihoods and security in their home, which they share with so many endangered species in this the very heart of Africa.