On March 15th, just before President Tshisekedi declared a lockdown of citizens to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Team Okapi set out to the Mehwa Edo to check the camera traps originally deployed in June 2019. This is the second trip to collect images and footage since deployment. While the camera traps were providing OCP with an incredible amount of footage of the animals that visit there, the positioning of some cameras made it challenging to achieve a good visual on the animals. Because of the fast growth of plants, and sometimes with the interference of curious animals, we needed to reposition some cameras and clear areas to ensure we continue to collect usable video footage and images.
Team Okapi consists of five guards, five porters, two trackers, and Berce Nsafuansa – our program manager. As always, safety is our key concern when Team Okapi sets out on these missions. Before leaving, an intelligence team of two trackers were sent out to ensure the security of the area and after the trackers returned reporting no concerns, Team Okapi began the multi-day journey through the dense forest. Mehwa is 26km (16mi) away from Epulu headquarters as the crow flies, but the team must navigate the dense rainforest in order to get there, making the journey a four-day roundtrip in total. During the excursion, they came across several poaching camps and snares, which were promptly destroyed and removed. Fortunately, no actual poachers were encountered along the way.
On March 17th, two days after the onset of their trip, Team Okapi reached Mehwa, where they would spend a day checking the memory cards, changing batteries, repositioning cameras and clearing the areas in front of the camera traps. The team ended up replacing a total of three cameras when malfunctions were discovered, moving two and setting up a third at a newly discovered salt lick about 300 meters from Mehwa to provide a more encompassing survey of the area.
Once maintenance was wrapped up and the team camped for the night, they began their return trip on March 18th. After a short detour on their return path due to a GPS malfunction and crossing paths with a baby duiker, Team Okapi returned home safely in the evening of March 19th , four days after their journey had begun.
From the data collected, the levels of frequentation of okapi and other species to the meadow appears very high. Mehwa was originally chosen because of its high density of large mammals that visit, and its close proximity to Epulu. The team noted that pygmies visit the Edo often, wielding hunting spears. We expect this disturbance will discourage animals from visiting the location, reducing their frequency and affecting their behavior. Still, we are excited to see so many threatened species visiting the Edo. Thank you, Team Okapi, for another successful mission!