In spite of ongoing instability in DRC the Okapi Conservation Project continues to support the ICCN rangers in their pursuit of poachers in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. After the attack on ICCN (Institute in Congo for Conservation of Nature) headquarters in Epulu some months ago, ICCN rangers have teamed up with DRC soldiers to track down and apprehend those responsible for that destructive and deadly attack.
The increasing worldwide demand for resources from this forest, including ivory, gold, diamonds and coltan has triggered a dramatic increase in forest intrusion and destruction. With the added burden of people in the forest, the increase in bushmeat poaching is inevitable. ICCN rangers spend their days in harsh conditions as they work through the forest tracking poachers and collecting snares. It is dangerous and grueling work, but each success brings satisfaction to these proud conservation soldiers.
ICCN rangers, and their families, are truly on the front lines of conservation in this World Heritage Site, home to the greatest biodiversity in Africa. Your support goes directly to help these rangers accomplish the important tasks before them.
The Okapi Conservation Project is not immune to the global pressures of an increased demand for ivory, gold and bushmeat. Three months ago armed rebels attacked the ICCN headquarters in the village of Epulu, killing rangers, and looting and burning ICCN and OCP buildings, and terrorizing residents. Many people fled the town and have been unable to return to their gardens and homes while the area remains unsecured.
This attack on the ranger station and the OCP compound was a direct retaliation for recent anti-poaching efforts by the ICCN guards in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The Okapi Conservation Project continues to support the ICCN rangers in their front line struggle to protect the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. We are presently assisting those families in Epulu most affected by this tragic event, with food and medical needs, and we also continue to support other communities around the Reserve with agro-forestry education, among our other community programs.
We will have more information on the unfolding situation from our Project Leaders next month. We are grateful for the tremendous support that has poured in from around the world over these past many weeks. For up-to-date information on the Okapi Conservation Project, please visit our website at http://www.okapiconservation.org/.
How do you monitor the health of a rainforest? One of our methods is to conduct regular aerial surveys. Unlike the savannahs in Africa, where you can fly over and actually count elephants and other wildlife from the air, this level of detail is impossible in the dense forests. Yet aerial surveys are still important and can reveal a lot. The indicators include poaching camps, mining camps, and areas where agricultural encroachment into the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is increasing.
To conduct the aerial surveys we work with partners at MAF who maintain excellent small planes with very skilled bush pilots. Flight transects are performed over a 3-5 day period (depending on weather) in different sectors of the vast Okapi Wildlife Reserve (13,760 km2). Observers in the plane look for any evidence of illegal activities and of course enjoy the incredible diversity of tree and plant life in the landscape of the Ituri Forest.
Details from the surveys are provided to the rangers of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve who then deploy to the areas of illegal activities in the forest to detain the perpetrators. This process has worked very well in the past to stop illegal poaching and mining activities inside the Reserve. The aerial presence also helps deter poachers and miners who realize their activities will be seen from the air. The surveys are another important tool in our work to conserve the forest and protect the okapi, elephants and other wildlife.
Update on Wildlife Protection in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve
Institute in Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN)
The ICCN Okapi Wildlife Reserve is managed by ICCN Director J.J. Mapilanga with the help of Conservator Principal (Warden) Gishlain Somba. They oversee the 110 Okapi Wildlife Reserve rangers and manage the wildlife protection and security in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, research projects, community conservation programs, and work in close partnership with the Okapi Conservation Project.
Unrest in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve
The pressure to exploit the natural resources of the DR Congo continues, with the high price of gold, diamonds, coltan, ivory and timber driving illegal activities. Reports of ivory being purchased in Kisangani for $200 per kg for export provide ample motivation for poachers to risk their lives to enter the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Gold mining has become more lucrative and Chinese companies using motorized equipment are dredging and extracting on the Ituri River, which is the southern border of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Bushmeat has become a valuable secondary byproduct as crews extracting timber or gold, or pursuing elephant ivory, are also hunting antelope, primates and okapi.
This trade is driven in part by the extensive Asian influence in the DR Congo, and recent CITES reports indicate the problem is widespread across Africa, as the Chinese increase their economic relations with poor African countries. Like the DRC, these countries generally have poor infrastructure to protect their natural resources and rely heavily on western donor agencies and NGO’s to support environmental protection initiatives.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve has seen a significant increase in organized illegal mining and ivory poaching which has become a serious concern for the ICCN. In their efforts to maintain the integrity of the OWR, ICCN wardens and rangers have expanded their efforts, working with local populations and lobbying government officials to help control the illegal activities. This is a double edged sword as often times government and army personnel are involved in the actions.
Because of the limited number of rangers on patrol in the vast OWR, ICCN often relies on mixed operations with the DR Congo Army to help with large or dangerous poaching or mining camps. The southwestern sector, adjacent to the potentially rich Ituri River gold deposits, has been a hotspot of late and several operations have been conducted there in the last year. These operations often result in firefights, arrests and even deaths both to poachers and rangers. The Okapi Conservation Project is pooling our resources with other NGOs to both support the operations and lobby for political intervention at the highest levels of the DR Congo administration.
During the second quarter of 2011 Okapi Wildlife Reserve rangers made 179 patrols representing 377 ranger days covering 6,086 km, mostly on foot. During the patrols the rangers arrested 11 poachers and 13 miners and released 53 hunters and 39 miners. They confiscated 5 guns, 110 pieces of ivory, 56 shovels for gold extraction and picked up 1237 wire and nylon snares. While on patrol OWR rangers saw 9 okapi, 44 forest elephants and 17 chimpanzees.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve Infrastructure
The Okapi Conservation Project is initiating a second project for the construction of permanent ranger housing at the Zunguluka Patrol Post located on the main road of the eastern border to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. This patrol post is a critical entry and exit point for all vehicle and pedestrian traffic through the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, as well as a base for forest patrols in the eastern portion of the Reserve. This project will construct housing for rangers and their families in support of their wildlife protection work in OWR. The project is possible through a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service African Elephant Fund – Wildlife Without Borders.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve (13,760 km2) is designated as a multiple use reserve in the DR Congo, providing community access for hunting and agriculture, including the Mbuti pygmy indigenous people. The Coordination Committee of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR), lead by the Institute in Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) works with community leaders and local NGO’s to designate, farming, hunting and core areas (no access or hunting). The Okapi Conservation Project has been appointed to organize preparatory education campaigns concerning zoning in the OWR Northern Sector. The first incentive to this plan was undertaken last March, when OCP educator Gomo, and Wildlife Conservation Society partner and technician Ntumba, traveled to Watsa for meetings and obtained a zoning protocol signature from the Regional Administrator in order to proceed.
In July and August the OCP education team organized 9 meetings in villages with 250 participants from Kebo and Ateru communities to introduce the zoning concept and process. As a result, WCS zoning technicians are now working with the communities establishing agriculture zones. Suggestions from the community leaders include requests for frequent visits of OCP educators in the area and for educational material regarding hunting regulations in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
Even though these meetings were successful, the team again encountered very bad road conditions, especially during the rainy season, as well as suspicious deployment of army troops as challenges. The Okapi Conservation Project education team will continue to focus their work in the northern sector, despite the distance from the project’s Epulu headquarters, which hampers communication and travel.
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