Tragic attack on the Okapi Faunal Reserve (RFO)

 We bring you some distressing news from the field.  Below is an article Noelle Kumpel wrote for Giraffa newsletter (see http://www.giraffeconservation.org/newsletters.php, volume 6, issue 1).  The ZSL team, led by Elise Queslin, was just about to start up a year-long study comparing different okapi survey methods (transects, recces, camera trapping and genetic analyses of dung, alongside a study of okapi dung decay rates) in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, when this attack happened.  Luckily Elise was on leave the very week of the attack, so our team had a very narrow escape, but some of our ICCN and partner NGO colleagues, local villagers and of course the captive okapi weren’t so lucky, being killed, kidnapped or fleeing into the forest for their lives.
 
A plaque dedicated to the victims of the attack on the RFO. ©N.Kumpel/ZSL
A plaque dedicated to the victims of the attack on the RFO. ©N.Kumpel/ZSL
Rebels kill people and okapi at Okapi Wildlife Reserve headquarters A shocking rebel attack took place on Sunday 24 June 2012 at the reserve headquarters and nearby town of Epulu in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), slaughtering the captive okapi kept there. Among other atrocities, a total of 7 people, including two ICCN rangers and a ranger’s wife, and all 14 captive okapi held at the reserve headquarters, were killed.  Buildings were destroyed and food, medical supplies and equipment looted at both the reserve headquarters and the town of Epulu.  Other reserve staff and villagers fled on foot into the forest following the attack or were taken hostage by the rebels.  A single okapi had been left alive but wounded and subsequently succumbed to her injuries. Carried out by an infamous Mai Mai rebel leader, the attack was not politically motivated but specifically targeted at conservationists.  From a nearby village, the rebel leader Morgan was a gold miner-turned-elephant poacher who had been arrested three times by the park authorities, ICCN (the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation), and had threatened retaliation against ICCN and the conservation groups that support its wildlife protection operations and personnel in the reserve, such as White Oak Conservation Center and its Okapi Conservation Project, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the German development bank KFW. John Lukas of White Oak Conservation Center said, ‘There are no words to describe the loss of the okapi at the station, some of which have been in residence for over 23 years and all made it through seven years of civil war unscathed. They were ambassadors for all wildlife in the forest and had been helping educate visitors to the station of the marvels of the diversity of life in the rainforest for over 25 years.’ During its recent annual meeting in Geneva, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee observed a minute of silence in memory of those killed by the rebels on 24 June. The reserve was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996 and has been on the World Heritage List in Danger since 1997. Recently, illegal mining and poaching for the ivory trade has increased in the reserve. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve occupies about one-fifth of the vast Ituri forest in the northeast of DRC, and is known as a stronghold for the okapi, which is threatened by hunting and habitat loss.  In addition to the traumatic losses at the reserve headquarters, the resulting insecurity in the reserve has forced a halt to a 12-month study into okapi survey methods that had just been started there by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) as part of the collaborative range-wide okapi conservation project it is leading on behalf of ICCN.  Ironically, ZSL had chosen to carry out this research there as the reserve had been felt to be relatively secure compared to other protected areas in central/north-eastern DRC where okapi are found. At both an individual and species-wide level, these are challenging and concerning times for the okapi.  Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost loved ones, and to those in DRC who risk their lives daily in the pursuit of conservation. Watch this BBC online report on the attack here, including footage of Epulu’s captive okapi: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-18679625. If you would like to support the families of the rangers who were killed and the rehabilitation of the reserve headquarters, you can find out more and donate online through the Wildlife Conservation Network (http://wildlifeconservationnetwork.org/about/news_okapi.html) or contact ICCN Okapi Wildlife Reserve Director Iyomi Iyatshi directly.

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