Last month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) partnered with a non-governmental organization, Fauna and Flora International, to launch an emergency appeal for funds that will help the Okapi Wildlife Reserve located in Democratic Republic of the Congo recover from a murderous raid it suffered on 24 June.
Heavily armed rebel poachers targeted the headquarters of the reserve, destroying equipment, burning buildings, and looting the nearby village of Epulu. Casualties include an immigration worker, two rangers, the wife of a ranger, two village residents and 14 okapi.
A notorious elephant poacher identified as “Morgan” led the group of illegal miners and poachers in the assault. The attack was retaliatory according to Richard Tshombe of Wildlife Conservation Society in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Poaching has been a consistent problem since the Reserve’s 1992 establishment, though they’ve yet to experience a direct attack. “The poachers have been harassed by the Reserve’s guards on multiple occasions,” Tshombe tells MediaGlobal. “Miners have been evicted from the Reserve and their mine facilities buried several times. Morgan did specifically target Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) infrastructure and personnel to give them a warning.”
Occupying one-fifth of the Ituri forest, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a World Heritage Site, plays a key part in preserving the lives of 101 mammal species and 376 species of birds. Servingas refuge to the largest remaining population of forest elephants in eastern DRC, the Reserve protects approximately 5,000 of the world’s remaining 30,000 wild okapi, a rare breed of giraffe. UNESCO rates the Reserve forests as among the best preserved in the Congo Basin, able to support a large indigenous population, the Mbuti and Efe pygmies, maintaining their economic and cultural requirements.
When negotiations began in the late 1980s to create the Reserve, the surrounding community chiefs entered into discussions with the Government of what was then Zaire. Since the Reserve’s creation and regulations affected them, the community chiefs outlined needs that must be met–both for personal benefit and communal. Confident that they could attain a grant from the World Bank, the government readily agreed to these demands.
When Zaire broke bilateral and multilateral cooperation with World Bank, EU and large western donor countries in the early 1990s, the grant was never attained. The economy collapsed and sent the country spiraling into poverty. Though it was greatly affected by this economic crisis, the ICCN was able to pull together resources, assisted by international NGOs, allowing it to create the Reserve.
In 1994, the ICCN and its partners promoted community conservation that would attend to the needs of the local communities, mostly assisting with agriculture. Though these efforts were interrupted by the country’s civil war, the Reserve and Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (USAID-CARPE) continued to invest money in the community, funding agricultural programs, providing tools, and building schools and clinics, according to Robert Mwinyihali of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
However, while the community has benefited, the chiefs still feel promises regarding their personal interests have not been met. “The population demands are huge and expectations very high. NGOs and ICCN do not have the capacity and means to address all the economic problems of the area,” Mwinyihali told MediaGlobal.
“The tension between conservationists and the local community is derived from the fact that ICCN and its partners have been trying to fill the gap left by the Government. Poverty is a very complex issue that can’t be tackled by NGOs alone,” Tshombe added.
The conflict surrounding poaching is not simply between the conservation workers and poachers; those suffering from hunger often depend on poachers to provide food. Economic turmoil has led to a food security crisis that has yet to be solved. With a high unemployment rate and constant depreciation of the currency, some feel that poaching, illegal mining, and bushmeat are the only options available.
Bushmeat (chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.) contributes to over 80 percent of rural African diets, providing protein that they would otherwise not have. According to Tshombe, elephant tusks’ prices have risen in value on the black market, and as of 2008, ivory poachers have killed at least a fifth of the elephants in the DRC.
As the demand for ivory and bushmeat continues to grow, so to does the risk of guards being brutally killed by poachers. What’s more, the guards are patrolling with limited supplies. Guns and ammunition have not been supplied by the Army, which leaves the guards vulnerable.
The appeal launched by UNESCO and Fauna and Flora International intends to raise money for the reconstruction of the ICCN infrastructures, equip guards, provide food and medication for the staff and guards, and assist the families of victims of the attack. “That may take a lot of money. The correct figure can be at the tune of $500,000 but any contribution from any donor will be very much appreciated,” Mwinyihali said.
The guards risk their lives every day, motivated not by money, but by the devotion they have to both the animals and the environment. In a news release, Chief of UNESCO’s Special Projects Unit, Guy Debonnet said, “Unless we can reverse this situation quickly, this will be a real setback for the conservation in Okapi Wildlife Reserve … We can’t let those poachers kill rangers and hunt wildlife with impunity.”