Preventing Bushmeat Poaching in Africa's Forests

by Wildlife Conservation Global
Forest Elephant and Calf in Okapi Wildlife Reserve
Forest Elephant and Calf in Okapi Wildlife Reserve

As a result of the support of so many individuals and institutions internationally, the number of wildlife rangers working in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is being increased with the training of fifty new recruits. These new rangers are beginning to go on patrol into more remote areas of the Reserve, working with existing ICCN (Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature) rangers to expand protection of the forest resources that forest elephants, chimpanzees, and okapi depend on to survive.

With an 80% decline in the population of forest elephants in DRC over the last 10 years, and the remaining stronghold found in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the northeast part of the country, protection of the entire Reserve is critical for their survival. Okapi were recently relisted as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List and the Reserve is home to the largest population of this rare, unique creature, in the world.

Rangers are tasked with not only tracking down wildlife poachers, but also with closing down illegal mines within the Reserve. As these mines are closed, the need for bush meat to supply the miners that have immigrated into this area for this exploitative opportunity is greatly reduced. You need to be strong and dedicated to work as a wildlife ranger. Long days spent pushing deeper into the forest tracking poachers and miners in the Reserve, requires lots of stamina and teamwork. The newly recruited rangers include the first women graduates of an intense training program aimed at tackling the challenges of protection in this pristine rainforest environment, which has been plagued in recent years with an increase in exploitive human activities. These determined young men and women are up to the task!

We are able to support these newest recruits only because of the many people around the world that care. The wildlife and people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a long way from where our donors live but we are all in this world together and through your support of the efforts of OCP staff and ICCN rangers we are making a real difference in the survival of elephants, okapi and the myriad of threatened wildlife in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

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Mining Camp Evacuees
Mining Camp Evacuees

Evacuation of illegal mining camps inside the Reserve was singled out during the 2013 Mambasa meeting called by Governor Saidi as the most important action that will help restore security in the Reserve and protect wildlife and forests from exploitation.

Like other endangered protected areas in DR Congo, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) went through a troubled period due to insecurity and the invasion of the Reserve by illegal miners, uncontrolled immigration, illegal poaching, and resource extractions perpetuated by various armed militias.

Among the nearly 70 mining camps which were illegally occupied after the June 24, 2012 attack and subsequent destabilization of the region, ICCN and partners targeted closing the seven biggest camps where the total number of miners was estimated to be around 20,000. Most of the miners came from cities outside the Reserve, and closing the camps does not involve removing local people.

A three-month amnesty period was announced in August of 2014 during which the miners were free to take their tools and leave the Reserve, more than 5,000 miners moved out of mining camps as a result of public awareness campaigns through public meetings and radio programs. After the conclusion of the amnesty period a joint force led by ICCN guards supported by Congolese troops swept the Reserve and closed the mines and escorted the miners out of the Reserve. People were allowed to take their personal possessions and were told if they returned they would be arrested. After 10,000 miners were peacefully evacuated most of the miners left the smaller mines as they realized that the government was serious about shutting down the mines.

A well-organized follow up phase was necessary to keep the mines closed and to demonstrate to the general population that mining in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve would not be tolerated in the future. Only by keeping the mines closed would the wildlife be able to return to the areas around the mines and allow the vegetation to regenerate. Not having to concentrate most of their resources on closing one mine after another frees up ICCN guards to focus on controlling poaching in the north of the Reserve. Fortunately an OCP donor stepped forward to fund targeted patrols to keep the mines closed.

During the last three months, ICCN and the National Army have mounted 41 patrols that covered 1,760 km and resulted in 129 people being arrested, four of which were poachers. It is very encouraging that only 125 miners of the 10,000 that were evacuated returned to the closed mines. The guards and soldiers also confiscated mining tools, five guns, three motorcycles, five generators, seven elephant tusks and 68 snares were collected. A second period of inspection of the closed mines is planned for early June. We would like to assure all local, Provincial, National and International partners that the evacuation of illegal miners from mining camps inside OWR was carried out peacefully and with strict respect of the Human Rights of all involved.

It is now possible for conservation activities to be extended, aiming at protecting the entire ecosystem and the elimination of elephant poaching, mining and logging. Key species including okapi, forest elephant and chimpanzees, which were under constant threat during the last three years, can now be consistently protected alongside other wildlife living in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. A significant benefit of closing the mines has been a reduction in the demand for bush meat. With 20,000 less people to feed that don’t have the means or need to grow food has reduced the number of snares that threatened so many species living in the forest including okapi.

It has taken a large amount of resources and a courageous effort by the ICCN guards and Congolese soldiers to reduce the threats to wildlife in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Make no mistake about it – it has been hard – guards and soldiers have died, many people suffered and some lost their homes. The Okapi Conservation Project is financially supporting ICCN efforts to keep the mines closed and drive out poachers from the Reserve. This requires an unremitting presence by the guards, making frequent patrols deep into the forest. Your support of OCP makes it possible to keep up the effort to protect the most important stronghold for okapi, forest elephant and chimpanzee conservation in all of DR Congo, the hard way, every day.

Nylon and Metal Snares
Nylon and Metal Snares

Okapi Conservation Project educators focus on working with schools in communities that interface with forest resources and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. School youth are considered important message multipliers and future decision-makers. In order to make them aware of conservation issues, OCP educators recently organized a series of conferences on forest protection and management of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve for secondary school children in Isiro, Watsa and Bunia. All three communities are district headquarters for territories that encompass the Reserve.

This far ranging trip involved the participation of 17 people, traveling in a pickup and riding several motorbikes. Over 2400 kilometers were covered, sometimes over very difficult muddy tracks, to bring the program to 2206 students attending 33 schools. This is the fifth time OCP has organized such a challenging public awareness campaign, involving students, school leaders and local media.

The conference participants openly discussed the nature of the threats to the forest as well as the unique conservation value of okapi and the Reserve. As an example of how the educators reach the students in Isiro protected animal posters were explained and distributed to schools for zoology lessons.

Given the interest of students in the conservation message, we feel that a good number of them will show an improved respect for the environment, share what they learned with their families and friends and have better attitude about accepting the restrictions on the use of natural resources allowed inside the Reserve.

During the trip OCP staff took the opportunity to meet with local government officials and host seminars. Nearly 100 officials participated in this activity alongside District Commissioners and Territory Administrators in Isiro, Watsa and Bunia. Conservation law brochures produced by OCP were handed out for their offices and staff. The OCP education team took advantage of the seminars to explain the reasons and procedures of closing mining camps, the importance of honoring the boundaries of the Reserve and the need to promote the conservation of nature as one of their defined roles as community leaders.

Student Conservation Conference in Bunia
Student Conservation Conference in Bunia

Conservation Education for Students 

Students are the future communicators and decision makers of conservation initiatives. Okapi Conservation Program (OCP) educators recently organized another series of classes on forest protection and management for upper-secondary students from Isiro, Watsa and Bunia. Students from these communities travelled long distances to participate in conservation awareness campaigns and to further their knowledge on environmental protection. Cumulatively, OCP educators have reached over 2,200 students from 22 schools distributing protected animal posters as part of zoology lessons; soccer balls and equipment were also given out for interschool tournaments.

OCP programs are well received by both students and school leaders who have requested regular classes and additional lessons on geography and natural sciences. In response, OCP has produced conservation lesson brochures for primary school children as well.

Generating excitement among school-aged children on conservation issues instills a positive attitude and respect for their environment which can be shared with family and friends to further protection measures for the Okapi and other animals on the Reserve.

Bamaro Women Learn About Conservation
Bamaro Women Learn About Conservation

The OCP education team continues delivering the message of sustainable hunting through Women’s Associations on the Reserve. Most recently 200 women from villages around the Reserve attended group meetings focused on protected animals of the Ituri forest. The Okapi Conservation Project also continues supporting organized women’s associations through programs safeguarding water resources from pollution and overuse. Working with the Women’s Associations provides an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of conservation of natural resources to those that depend most on the land to support the needs of their families. Additionally, surveys on bush meat consumption were distributed in Nia Nia, Bafwanakengele, Bafwabango and Bayenga, and patrols dismantled eight poacher camps and removed over 1200 nylon and metal snares from the forest.

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Organization Information

Wildlife Conservation Global

Location: Jacksonville, FL - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.okapiconservation.org
Project Leader:
John Lukas
Jacksonville, Florida United States
$9,920 raised of $45,000 goal
 
278 donations
$35,080 to go
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