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.