Okapi Conservation Project, Update – July 22, 2012

Okapi Conservation Project

Update July 22, 2012

Summary:

After reviewing the damage from the attack last month it appears possible to repair the buildings and bring in equipment and material to reestablish our base in Epulu.  The loss of human lives at the hands of the rebels, the psychological scars of the residents, the deaths of the okapi, extensive looting by the Congolese army -  all of these things make Epulu a far different place, though, than it was previously. This is the fourth time we have been looted in our 25 years in the Congo but we never lost personnel or okapi, even during the seven year long civil war.

Ransacked OCP office, Epulu, DRC

We are presently helping the families of victims cope with their losses and have distributed over 4,000 lbs of food and are paying for medical care for the families displaced from Epulu. Food rations to OCP and ICCN families in Mambassa, Epulu, Nia Nia and Beni will be distributed twice a month while they wait for security to be restored to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. We remain deeply concerned for the remaining hostages being held and are working with all partners and ICCN in finding a way to return them to their families.

We have a lot of work to do but can only move forward when the government of DR Congo takes action to reestablish security in the region, reign in wildcat military officers, rearm the ICCN rangers and arrest and punish murderers and poachers. All the partners and ICCN are working together to get the government of DRC to act now so we will be able to continue our long established work to conserve wild okapi and preserve the biodiversity of the Ituri Forest. The people of Epulu are grateful for this support in their time of need.

Distributing Food and Supplies to People in Epulu Affected by Attack

Trip Report:

I returned to the U.S. late on July 20th after eight days in the DR Congo. The situation on the ground in Epulu, and in the region, is very complex and unstable.  First-hand, eyewitness accounts from survivors and hostages that were released have generated information that has been corroborated by several sources.

- The attack on the Epulu Station occurred at 5AM Sunday morning, June 24, 2012. Thirty five Mai Mai/Simba rebels under the command of Morgan Sadala opened fire on the guards on duty. The rebels were in possession of two 50+ caliber machine guns which completely overwhelmed the guards. In the firefight that lasted approximately one hour, one ranger was killed, one ranger was injured and escaped with Conservateur Somba, one immigration worker, and one truck driver and four Mai Mai were also killed.

- A ranger and the wife of another ranger who was on patrol away from Epulu were killed near their homes.  A civilian was killed in town.

- The okapi at the Station were killed around 10AM Sunday morning.

- ICCN headquarters were destroyed and burned, a vehicle was burned and the Conservateur’s house was burned Sunday afternoon.

Burned and Destroyed ICCN Headquarters, Epulu, DRC

- The Mai Mai/Simba rebels looted shops in town and rounded up 56 hostages to carry stolen goods and left Epulu Monday afternoon.

- FARDC (Congolese army) troops arrived Monday afternoon from Bafwasende after the rebels had left. They followed them for 4km before returning to the Station where they began looting.  Additional FARDC troops from Bunia arrived Tuesday after looting some shops in Mambassa.

- U.N. troops arrived in Epulu Tuesday afternoon, but in spite of their presence the Congolese troops continued looting all conservation facilities belonging to the Okapi Conservation Project, Wildlife Conservation Society and Forest Biodiversity Project and most houses in Epulu.

- The damage to OCP infrastructure and equipment was carried out by the Congolese army, not the rebels.  Cash, fuel, computers and motorcycles were taken along with anything else that could be sold for cash. Most buildings were trashed with doors and windows smashed to gain entry.

Burned and Destroyed Education Center at Epulu

- 45 hostages were released after one week, while 11 female hostages are still held by Morgan and his rebels.

- ICCN and partner organization representatives met in Beni on Saturday July 14, to formulate plans to reestablish security and develop rebuilding plans and budgets for ICCN.

- Points of Action agreed upon by the participants to this meeting were as follows: ICCN is committed to restoring security in the Epulu area in the coming month and initiating a joint military action against Morgan and his rebels.  ICCN headquarters in Kinshasa will work to rearm the rangers.

- An Emergency Fund has been set up by the partners to assist ICCN in regaining control of Epulu and the Reserve.

- Rosie Ruf and I traveled to Mambassa on Sunday, July 15 and met with ICCN and OCP staff that had relocated from Epulu.  On Monday we proceeded to Zunguluka guard post, on the eastern edge of the Reserve, to review construction of two new guard barracks funded by USFWS and OCP.  Armed rangers accompanied us on the 70km journey to survey Epulu. Also, Dr. Eli Balongwa and Nurse Gilbert Saburo traveled to Epulu with us to reopen the clinic to serve the staff slowly returning to the area.

ICCN Guards and OCP Staff in Mambasa, DRC for Planning

- Epulu now has a force of around 100 Congolese (FARDC) soldiers patrolling the area.  We were given free access to assess the damage.

- A detailed description of the state of our infrastructure and rebuilding costs is presently under development.  Fortunately very heavy items, like our generator and welder, were left intact.  The airstrip was not damaged and the dispensary only received minor damage.  The loss of all of our computers and hard drives, and the destruction of our V-Sat system will make starting up again a challenging task.

- After reviewing all the facilities at the Station including the Dispensary, we met with the OCP and ICCN staff that remained in Epulu, and distributed their share of the emergency food rations.  It was during this time that we had an opportunity to speak with eyewitnesses to the attack and looting and also to former hostages.

OCP and ICCN Staff meeting at destroyed ICCN headquarters

- On Tuesday, July 17 we traveled back to Beni and met once again with ICCN and OCP senior staff to discuss what was learned from these tragic events and how we can proceed in a different way in order to have the best opportunity to avoid this kind of catastrophe in the future.  One recommendation which we are implementing now is to spread out our physical resources in our offices around the Reserve and so that all our equipment and supplies are not in one central location.

- Over the next two days we developed an interim plan and budgets for the OCP that can be carried out while ICCN works to reinstate security for Epulu and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

- During the next few months the OCP will concentrate on helping displaced families, and supporting ICCN efforts to catch this group of rebels and provide security to the people living and working in Epulu.  The construction of the Zunguluka guard barracks will be completed.

- Programs outside of Epulu, in OCP offices in Nia Nia, Mambassa, and Wamba, will continue and even be expanded, if possible.  These programs include education, agroforestry, community assistance, medical care and immigration control. OCP educators are immediately launching an effort to meet with customary chiefs to inform them of our intentions to continue our work with their communities.

- Once FARDC troop numbers in Epulu are reduced, we will begin cleaning and repairing the facilities.  Resupplying and rebuilding the Station will depend upon the level of security that can be maintained by ICCN and the Congolese army. We plan to assess the level of security in two months before we initiate any rebuilding efforts or allow senior staff to return full time to Epulu.

The top priority in the coming months is to mobilize the government of DRC to assist ICCN in rounding up the MaiMai/Simba rebels, capturing Morgan, and reestablishing security in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.  We are also pushing for the government to investigate the military leaders responsible for allowing the looting of equipment and facilities associated with conservation NGO’s working in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.  It is firmly believed that the FARDC military leaders in Bafwasende are complicit with the Rebels.  Morgan and his rebels at this time are not being pursued by the military even though they still hold 11 hostages.

Under investigation by officials in Kinshasa now, is the question of how far up the military chain of command this complicit relationship between the Congolese army and the rebel poachers goes.  We are working with ICCN to put pressure on President Kabila to send in properly trained forces to protect the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. It is obvious that Monusco (UN troops) are presently unable to protect civilians and property.

The escalating value of ivory and gold globally, has driven people living in one of the poorest countries on earth to exploit and destroy their own resources in an attempt to acquire some of the wealth that predominantly goes to politicians, military leaders and foreign investors. The poachers and miners with the backing of the military terrorize local communities and need to be removed from the Reserve if we are to be able to continue our efforts to support and educate the communities in this area of the value in conserving the natural resources of this World Heritage Site.

John Lukas

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