Ambassador of Congo
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Conserving the Okapi means conserving the rainforest, a "tremendous ecosystem"
Okapi: “ghosts of the forest” and a symbol of conservation
As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been notorious for the rampant violence perpetuated by extreme militia groups, the DRC is also one of the most biologically diverse areas in all of Africa, particularly the Ituri Forest in the northeastern region; a 40,000 square-kilometer tract of the Ituri Forest houses the 13,700 square-kilometer Okapi Wildlife Reserve. According to the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 working in the DRC to protect the natural habitat of the Okapi (their national symbol), in addition to the culture of the local Mbuti pygmies, the OCP supports the Institute in the Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the DRC government agency which protects the flora and fauna of the country. The Ituri Forest historically held dense populations of the Okapi, where a capture station was stationed by the Belgians in the town of Epulu; currently, the Epulu Okapi Breeding and Research Station serves as the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which is managed by ICCN for the Conservation of Nature, with support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, with the belief that peace must be established on uniting humanity's morality and intellectuality), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, devoted to global conservation through saving wildlife), and the OCP.
According to John Lukas, Founder and President of the Okapi Conservation Project, the Okapi are considered the 'ghost of the forest,' as they are rarely seen; the Okapi are quiet, vigilant, and avoid detection and predation as they disappear into the rainforest, dependent on their distinguishing brown and white markings on the rear and legs, which camouflage them in the forest. As the OCP describes, 'The stripes look like streaks of sunlight filtering through the trees.' Lukas continues, Okapi, or 'forest giraffes' are 'living fossils;' a United Kingdom University discovered part of the Okapi genetic lineage as over 6 million years, predating the evolution of numerous modern mammals.
According to the OCP, the Okapi was first discovered in Africa in 1901 when Sir Harry Johnston, Governor of Uganda, obtained Okapi skins and skulls, which he sent to the British Museum, the first exposure of the Okapi to Westerners. The Okapi are endemic to the DRC and regarded as a conservation icon in the DRC, '' representing the diversity of the forest while helping to garner support for conservation,' where protecting the Okapi and their natural habitat also helps to protect thousands of other species. As Lukas continues, the DRC is home to a myriad of species of animals, such as birds and butterflies, with 17 different primate species, with the largest population of chimpanzees, forest elephants and Okapi in the DRC are found in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The unique diversity of wildlife in the DRC is attributed to the intact forest in that area (Mobutu, the leader of Zaire, had wanted that area undisturbed for mining purposes, when the DRC was previously a part of Zaire).
The Okapi are well-known among the local Mbuti pygmy people, with a taboo against killing them, respecting the 'ancestral spirits' living within the Okapi (and chimpanzees). To Lukas, the Okapi is a unique animal, serving as a 'symbol of conservation for all species in the Democratic Republic of Congo.' A part of the success in the conservation of a species is in the local community knowledge of the species and conservation efforts. In addition to preserving the rare plant and animal wildlife indigenous to the DRC, conservation also preserves the human cultures found within the Reserve, particularly the last of the true forest people, the Mbuti pygmies, protecting their way of life, as it has been for over 20,000 years.
As the OCP cites, the Okapi numbers have been in the steady decline since 1995, due to armed conflict, human settlement and deforestation (for agricultural purposes), and poaching, particularly of elephants. In November of 2013, the OCP announced the Okapi had been reclassified as 'Endangered,' after a reassessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species; the mission of the IUCN is to encourage and assist global societies to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature, ensuring the natural resources are ecologically sustainable. As Lukas accounts, the Okapi was reclassified when it was determined that their population has declined over 50 percent over the last 3 generations, or 24 years (an Okapi generation is eight years). To Lukas, 'The reclassification of the okapi as an endangered species speaks to the importance of raising awareness about this unique species whose habitat has been overrun by armed groups engaging in poaching and in illegal mining disrupting ICCN efforts to protect the wildlife and people of the region.' The reclassification also opens the opportunity for additional grants for organizations to help endangered animals.
In efforts to support the work of the ICCN in protecting and monitoring the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, the OCP supports the wardens and rangers who have established a presence in the forest, responsible for enforcing wildlife protection laws for the Reserve. Lukas accounts, 110 rangers are based in the Reserve, and the OCP funds their efforts to protect the forests and wildlife within the Reserve. The rangers are paid salaries, with a bonus system, based on their performance, to supplement their salaries; in earning a salary, the rangers can protect the forest and its inhabitants, as well as providing a stable livelihood for themselves and their families. The rangers can travel up to 24,000 kilometers per year on foot, searching for illegal poachers, looking for snares the poachers use, and ridding the Reserve of illegal activity and monitoring the wildlife.
Threats to the Okapi have been in place since the breakdown of civil order (after the civil war of 1997-2003), which led to the proliferation of armed militias, with interests in gold mining and elephant poaching in the region. Due to dangers stemming from poachers and armed groups, rangers cannot safely patrol the areas, which is also a detriment to effective conservation efforts. However, the threats from these groups have declined within the past six to seven months, as the call into action by the OCP and the international conservation community to combat these forces has been met with an unprecedented response. For example, a group of rangers had received intelligence regarding the location of elephant poachers (for their tusks in the illegal ivory trade) who had killed over 1,000 elephants. The leader of the poachers was consequently killed amidst a gunfight. Lukas also speaks of the devastating attack on the Epulu Station in 2012.
According to the OCP, notorious poacher, Paul 'Morgan' Sadala and his Simba/Mai Mai rebels stormed the Epulu Station, resulting in looted homes, and devastating damage in the form of 'Station guards, villagers and fourteen ambassador okapi'the entire population at the Station'lay dead amid the ruin,' as hostages were also taken. What was heartbreaking was to learn that the attack was neither out of necessity, nor greed, but as retaliation against the decades of the OCP support for the DRC governmental efforts in combating against the illegal activities in the Reserve, despite the years of relative calm within the region, 'where stability is as elusive as the okapi itself, Epulu succumbed to violence.' Lukas elaborates, the DRC is rampant with armed forces with interests in mining and killing elephants, where the ICCN had been successful in inhibiting those activities. In retaliation, these rebels have not only caused havoc among the population, but created additional insecurity to the region. With the demise of military groups, such as M23 in eastern DRC (which was forced to disarm, demobilize, and prepare for integration on terms agreed upon with the DRC government), Lukas is confident that Sadala realizes the government's ability to deal with him, and attempts to control other military groups, 'he's concerned.'
The OCP was able to provide food for the ICCN and the villages for approximately six months, as the land which the people grow their food on, or shambas, were inaccessible. The OCP also funded the purchasing of motorcycles and equipment for the rangers, as well as gaining support from the Congolese army. The president of the DRC met with the OCP staff, which helped to improve the effectiveness from the Congolese army and resources for the rangers. The OCP staff recently finished rebuilding the ICCN headquarters (destroyed during the attack). The 50 people held hostage were returned; a grant from the US Foundation provided help to the women hostages, which provided counseling and assistance to acquire marketable skills to earn a living. A tremendous amount of funds and encouragement was given to rebuild the Epulu Station; a meeting is to be held in Kinshasa, with the hope of generating additional funds in order to increase the security of the eastern DRC, recognizing the region as an important place for biodiversity, the 'last stronghold of the country,' as Lukas remains optimistic in the resilience of the country, and the resilience of the people. Despite the poverty and devastation stemming from armed groups and poaching, the people's lives have returned to normal as they '' are now laughing and smiling, as the kids are playing with their homemade toys.'
The OCP reported on April 20, 2014, Sadala was killed by Congolese army soldiers, as '' a disagreement over the terms of his surrender under an amnesty agreement erupted into a gunfight between the two sides in Molokay.'
To the OCP, it is imperative to reach out to communities living around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, in educating the people about the importance of the forest, engaging them to become stewards of their natural heritage. The local people recognize the correlation between the destruction of the habitat and the degradation of their livelihoods. The OCP encourages the local people in taking a sustainable approach to farming, which allows the people to grow the food they need, without degrading the forest, illustrating a positive correlation between the people's quality of life and protecting wildlife habitat. It is amazing to Lukas the local people's understanding of the delicate balance of the ecosystem, as well as understanding climate change, where they are extremely intuitive of the rainfall, and 'quantifying what is happening in the rainforest.' All the people need is access to basic resources.
Assisting these communities by building a sufficient infrastructure, such as schools and health clinics, helps to preserve the wildlife and habitat. In providing basic needs, a beneficial connection is made with conservation, as the OCP develops a relationship with the local people. The education team will listen to the local people about their needs, as the local people will listen about the importance of using the habitat in a sustainable way, and the necessity to conserve; this understanding improves the effectiveness in helping the local people in cultivating a sustainable and stable livelihood. Communication and education also reaches the children, as they will help to replant rainforest and native fruit trees in abandoned fields and along roadsides. The seedlings are provided by the OCP agronomes, which aids in reversing the deforestation around the villages.
According to the OCP, the OCP supports twelve clinics around the Reserve, and healthcare providers provide assistance to local residents, also visiting rural villages, with a special emphasis on providing education in the prevention of HIV-AIDS, malaria prevention and treatment, and midwife training. Access to clean water is the most efficient and direct way to improve the general health of the people, where the OCP continues to build and help maintain clean water resources in the villages around the Reserve.
Lukas credits the women's associations in the larger towns to empowering the local people in the Ituri region. The OCP provides funds for their administration as well as micro-enterprises, such as sewing and gardening. The women are 'very strong voices for conservation,' by providing a better livelihood to their children, which dramatically decreases the lure for the younger people to be involved in illegal activity, as well as caring for orphans. The women's 'voice is listened to' as they maintain an 'amazing community spirit.'
Lukas considers the Agro-Forestry program to be an integral part of conservation, mitigating the impact of deforestation, as there is a great demand to expand the program each year from the villagers. According to the OCP, the traditional method of farming in the region is 'slash and burn,' where trees and other vegetation are cut and burnt to clear plots of land to grow crops. Lukas continues, the soil will eventually degrade, forcing the people to move deeper into the forest to repeat the process; the agro-forestry method teaches the local people how to stay on their plot of land for a longer period of time. Part of the process is to introduce nitrogen-fixing plants and legume trees. The OCP elaborates, the Leucaena tree increases crop yields by 25 percent, extending the productivity of the soil for three to four years, allowing the fields to rest as the trees grow, shading out invading grasses, and improving the quality of the soil by naturally adding nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing crops. This process allows for the 'land to be returned to agricultural use within 3 years rather than the 15 years experienced with more traditional farming methods.' Lukas continues, this method reduces the need to expand agricultural production deeper into the forest, reducing the human-wildlife conflict, also helping to conserve the Okapi habitat. Currently, 5 percent of the Reserve is zoned for agricultural purposes and the agroforestry program, which helps the 'people stay within the agricultural zones and at the same time produce extra food, which they can sell for cash, creating a better overall livelihood.'
Although the DRC may seem a distant place, we can help by taking a stand against global ivory sales, negating the desirability for elephant poaching, and therefore, monetary support to militia groups, who hinder conservation efforts. People can also support Okapi conservation by contributing funds, as 100 percent of the OCP funds goes towards community conservation programs in the DRC, as well as supporting the rangers and staff, who at times, risk their lives to protect the wildlife of the Ituri Forest. To Lukas, the rangers and the OCP staff work tirelessly to 'influence the young people to reject a life involved in illegal activities, as it will lead to a life with no future.'
The Okapi is a mysterious, elusive being, rarely seen, yet the Okapi presence is resounding. To Lukas, the Okapi is a 'symbol of this remarkable diversity [in the DRC],' well-respected among the Congolese people, who want to protect their natural heritage. Conserving the Okapi means conserving the rainforest, a 'tremendous ecosystem,' which ultimately conserves an innumerable amount of species, including numerous rare mammals, birds, and plants. To Lukas, we must be vigilant in the plight a myriad of animals face: their survival. Lukas gives the example of the rainforest Sumatran rhinoceros, whose numbers are less than 100. To Lukas, we must all work together, 'As we lose a species, our quality of life and that of our children, is diminished.'
For more information, please visit: Okapiconservation.org
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)