By John Lukas
The OCP staff has been working through the tragic death of our conservation educator Jean Claude Kalinda during an attack on our vehicle outside the village of Eringeti on February 17. This incident, among many others in the region, testifies to the dangerous conditions OCP staff work under every day to carry out our mission to conserve okapi in the wild. Without your support, we could not make it through these difficult times, and knowing that people around the world care motivates our staff to keep trying to make a difference in the lives of people and animals living in the Ituri Forest.
OCP educators have been extremely busy distributing 3,000 calendars with conservation messages to schools, businesses and government offices around the Ituri landscape. In order to make it clear to local communities which species of animals are totally protected in DRC, five thousand posters depicting images of 16 totally protected endangered species with their scientific, French, Swahili and Lingala names were distributed to communities inside and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
In association with the distribution of the posters, an awareness campaign was carried out by OCP educators to make people aware of the laws regulating hunting in DRC, emphasizing the difference between sustainable hunting and poaching, which is punishable by fines and incarceration. The communities were very appreciative of the animal’s names in several languages and felt it would boost the community’s knowledge of which species are protected by law. Several studies have shown that when people know that an animal is endangered, the killing of that species declines. We will monitor the checkpoints to see if trade in certain species declines as more and more people are made aware of which species are totally protected.
OCP’s agroforestry team built a new tree nursery in Wamba, bringing the total number of OCP tree nurseries to five, which produced and distributed 17,153 tree seedlings to 400 farmers in the first quarter of 2018.
OCP agronomes collected 1,463 kilograms of rice, 304 kilograms of peanuts and 527 kilograms of beans from first-year farmers to be stored until the next growing season when the seeds will be redistributed to new farmers joining the agroforestry programs.
OCP support of ICCN is the cornerstone of protecting okapi habitat. The construction of a new office, an immigration processing building and sanitary facilities at the Zunguluka Patrol Post is nearly complete. Once in operation, this major access point to the Reserve will be much more efficient and thorough in processing people and vehicles travelling through the Reserve on the only East-West road in Eastern DRC.
We welcomed a new warden, Paulin Tshikaya, on January 8, 2018. I have worked with Paulin in Garamba National Park in the past and we expect he will continue the excellent programs initiated under his predecessor, Radar Nishuli.
The rangers made a concerted effort to expand their patrol effectiveness during the dry season months of January and February. The first quarter results were enhanced by the presence of 400 Congolese soldiers in Epulu which mounted several operations targeting poaching gangs which impacted the number of poachers operating inside the Reserve. During the first quarter of 2018, ICCN rangers carried out 132 patrols covering 4,838 kilometers. While on patrol, rangers destroyed 761 snares, destroyed 27 poaching and mining camps, confiscated 2 guns, 226 rounds of ammunition and assorted mining tools. Rangers inspected 13 of the 16 known active mines inside the Reserve, evacuated 298 miners and arrested 43 repeat offenders. The rangers are very diligent about recording observations and signs of key wildlife species while on patrol. During January-March, they observed four okapi (one for every 1,210 kilometers walked), 17 forest buffaloes, 20 forest elephants, and many species of primates, duikers and birds.
All the difficult and dangerous work of the ICCN rangers and Congolese soldiers has provided a chance for the wildlife populations to move back into areas around mines and poaching camps once the people have been evacuated. We are hopeful that the presidential election will be held in December and DRC will, with the help of many concerned foreign nations, move quickly to establish law and order in every part of this vast country. I sense hope from our OCP staff members and friends in Kinshasa and in the meantime, we must hold the line safeguarding okapi habitat until a new regime takes on the responsibility of governing a country overflowing with natural resources that, if properly utilized, could lift its people out of poverty. Eliminating lawlessness will make the work of the rangers and OCP staff much less dangerous and much more productive and really provide a secure future for wild okapi.