On July 14, 2017, an unidentified group of armed men attacked a group of rangers and journalists in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) in Bapela, a three-hour walk through the forest outside of the town of Bandisende, just east of our station in Epulu.
Because of the relative calm in the area and regular presence of Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) rangers, ICCN Kinshasa authorized a visit by three independent journalists, including two Dutch reporters and an American reporter accompanied by a Congolese interpreter. The reason for their visit was to produce a documentary on the threats facing the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and to demonstrate the efforts by ICCN rangers who risk their lives every day protecting the forest.
The Bapela mine was regularly occupied for several years by illegal gold miners, but in late March 2017, the miners were removed from the area by ICCN rangers. A section of rangers was posted at the mine to prevent reoccupation of the area, and a regular rotation of rangers was set in place.
On July 13, during the regularly scheduled rotation to relieve the ICCN rangers posted at the mine, a team of nine ICCN rangers, accompanied by the three journalists and the interpreter traveled to the area to collect information for the documentary. They arrived at the location as planned and spent the night.
On July 14 around 3:30 p.m., the camp was attacked by unknown assailants.
Late that evening, the first group of eight people who had managed to escape, including five ICCN rangers, the two Dutch journalists and the injured paddler of the canoe that saved them, arrived at the headquarters in Epulu. The rest of the ranger team and the American journalist were unaccounted for.
A team of ICCN rangers and Congolese military was dispatched on a search-and-rescue mission to find the remaining rangers and the American journalist. Upon arrival at the scene of the attack, there were no signs of the attackers which had taken all money, identification, weapons and equipment, leaving only tents and food. The team of ICCN rangers and Congolese military found the American journalist hiding in a hole previously dug by the gold miners.
In the early hours of July 16, the ICCN rangers in the OWR deployed another team to Bapela to recover the bodies of the five individuals who were killed at the site. That afternoon, the last of the surviving rangers was accounted for in Bandisende. The Congolese army is still searching for a Congolese porter who is still unaccounted for after the attack.
An investigation is underway to determine the identity of the attackers and the reason for the attack. Virunga National Park graciously sent additional reinforcements and scent dogs to assist with the search for the attackers, and sent a plane to safely evacuate the journalists to Virunga National Park headquarters where they were treated for minor injuries.
We are devastated by the loss of five individuals – four dedicated ICCN rangers, Antopo Selemani, Gukiya Ngbekusa, Kisembo N’singa, and Sudi Koko, who worked tirelessly to protect the forest, and one porter, Lokana Tingiti. We are thankful that none of our project staff were involved or hurt during the attack. Right now, we are focused on the families of those killed, and concentrating on the needs of the local community who need to know we are there for them.
Okapi Conservation Project is covering the costs of the mission to retrieve the fallen rangers from the forest and covering all funeral costs to relieve the financial burden on their families during this devastating time. Any support from our global community of supporters is welcomed and appreciated to help cover the costs of helping the affected families and honoring the dedicated rangers who gave their lives protecting the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
ICCN rangers risk their lives every day protecting the integrity of the forest and the animals that live within it. They continue to work in these hostile conditions, and they need to know that we will continue to be there for them every day. The strongest message we can send to the unidentified attackers is to steadfastly remain committed to supporting the ICCN rangers’ efforts to protect okapi and the forest, and supporting the communities that are impacted by these senseless acts of violence.