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A year after devastating attack, security returns to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (photos)

John Lukas will be speaking at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013.

On June 24th of last year, MaiMai Simba rebels, led by an elephant poacher known as Morgan, launched a devastating attack on the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Epulu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The attack, which was reportedly in response to a crack down on poaching and illegal mining in the park, left buildings burned, equipment destroyed, and six people dead including two rangers. The militia also left with 28 women hostages, many of them minors. As if to add insult to injury, the militia didn’t leave until they shot dead all 14 captive okapis at the headquarters, which were used as wildlife ambassadors for the local community.

Over a year later and security and peace has begun to return to Epulu with the armed militias being run out of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, according to renowned conservationist John Lukas. Working with okapi protection for 25 years, Lukas is head of the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), which was instrumental in founding the park and helps manage the protected area along with the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN). However, the militia that conducted the tragic raid, including its leader Morgan, remain at large.

A World Heritage Site, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was set up in 1992 in order to protect one of the world’s most important populations of the notoriously shy okapis (Okapia johnstoni). The 13,700 square kilometers reserve is also home to large populations of forest elephants, forest buffalo, and over 300 bird species.

The okapi, which is most closely related to giraffes, was only discovered by scientists in 1901 and remains a cryptic yet beautiful animal. It is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. The okapi is only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lukas will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013, an event which will be headed by Jane Goodall.


John Lukas (center) with wildlife rangers at the headquarters in Epulu. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

Mongabay: Will you give us an update on the situation in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and your headquarters?

John Lukas: The situation has stabilized with security being controlled by rearmed Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) rangers and Congolese army soldiers. We have been able to repair all damaged project facilities and restore Internet communication. The generator and solar system are functioning to provide electricity for mechanics and carpenters. The airstrip is open and being maintained by Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) workers. The ICCN Reserve headquarters that was damaged during the attack has been demolished and the rubble hauled away. OCP workers have stabilized the foundation and have made hundreds of concrete blocks to begin the construction of a new headquarters building which is now underway. The rangers are patrolling with soldiers from the patrol posts and special operations have been carried out targeting elephant poachers and illegal mines. Progress has been made but there is still much to do to gain full control of the Reserve from all the various elements involved in the lucrative ivory and gold trade. The rangers are focusing on collecting snares and arresting those making snares as this is the primary way okapi are killed. Limiting snares reduces the chances an okapi will be incidentally caught while they forage in the forest. As of early September no armed militia are operating inside the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR).

Mongabay: How well has the community of Epulu been able to recover from the attacks?

Okapi in the DRC. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

John Lukas: The community has recovered extremely well with most residents moving back to their homes and children have returned for the summer school vacation. OCP provided uniforms and equipment to form a boys and girls soccer teams which have been competing with other teams from local towns and villages. This has lifted morale and brought a sense of normalcy to the community. The shops are open and truck traffic is steady providing income to the shop keepers. People are working in their gardens as no armed intrusions have occurred since the attack in June 2012. The presence of the army and a large contingent of rangers at the Station provides a sense of security and a deterrent to those that may want to try to cause a breakdown in law and order for their own benefit.

Mongabay: Has the security situation improved since the attack?

John Lukas: Overall security has improved with the armed militias operating well outside of the Reserve and focusing on gold mines as the target of their greed. The new UN forces have the mandate to take the offensive and have indicating they will be going after Morgan’s group in the near future. Elephant poaching is still a concern but the poachers move constantly as the rangers and soldiers follow up on information provided by informants. The Governor of Orientale Province has encouraged community leaders to assist ICCN and is providing military resources to help maintain security.

Mongabay: Several women were kidnapped by the poachers who carried out the attack. Will you tell us about what happened to them?

John Lukas: All of the hostages taken by Morgan’s group including the women have been released, the last ones were released near Mambasa in January 2013. OCP is administering funds provided by the Nancy Abraham Foundation to provide assistance to the hostages and victims of rape during the attack on Epulu. Finding the resources to help the women is difficult because it means traveling under difficult circumstances away from their homes and families. We are trying to organize the best way to help them without disrupting their family life.

Mongabay: Officials are aware of who carried out the attacks. Are they currently attempting to catch the group?

Locals play drums in Epulu. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

John Lukas: Yes, many attempts have been made to capture the MaiMai rebels responsible for the attack on the Epulu Station. Many MaiMai and a few soldiers have been killed during these engagements. Morgan has been weakened and recently was attacked by the army in North Kivu far from Epulu. The UN and the army want to step up their efforts to get him but the situation with the M23 rebels near Goma is a priority at the moment.

Mongabay: Are their plans to replace any of the okapi that were lost in the attack?

John Lukas: Not at this time. With those responsible for the deaths of the 14 okapi at the Station still on the loose it would be irresponsible to put any other okapi in possible harms way. We are focusing our efforts on supporting the protection the 3,000 okapi living in the Reserve and bringing peace and security to the region that will benefit both wildlife and people.

Mongabay: How can people help the reserve and the people of Epulu?

John Lukas: People can help OCP continue to support the ICCN rangers in their efforts to control illegal trafficking in wildlife be it ivory or bushmeat and to evict illegal miners that depend on bushmeat to live in the forest. In addition our community programs improve the quality of life for the people sharing their homeland with okapi, primates and elephants. The best way to conserve the wildlife in the Ituri Forest is to protect the forest from destruction and people who care about a future for their children are more responsible stewards of their environment. We depend on donations to operate the Okapi Project and 100% of all donated funds is used in DRC to operate our community programs and support ICCN.

People greet each other at a checkpoint in Epulu. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

Pangolin in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Photo by: Reto Kuster.

Distributing school supplies. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

New well in Epulu. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

Repairing the ICCN office. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

Guards burning snares. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

Road to Epulu inside the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Photo courtesy of the Okapi Conservation Project.

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