The trip from Entebbe to Epulu still requires an overland border crossing from Uganda to DR Congo which means many document and Ebola checks and three flights on small planes. Due to the condition of the road and the added uncertainty of who we might meet, we charted a flight into Epulu. Lucas Meers and myself arrived in Epulu on the 23rd of September one day ahead of the delegations from ICCN and WCS. The week was filled with ceremonies and meetings. The Director General of ICCN, Cosma Wilungula and Scientific Director Mapilanga were in attendance along with Emma Stokes of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Separate meetings were held with OCP senior staff, the Women’s Group of Epulu, WCS representatives, ICCN leadership and with high ranking members of all partner organizations.
Ceremonies attended by partner staff, community members and customary chiefs included the official handing over of management of the Reserve to WCS, setting the first stone for the new residence of the Assistant Warden and the official opening of the new hospital wing of the Okapi Clinic in Epulu. The Director General of ICCN cut the ribbon opening the clinic expansion.
The clinic expansion, funded by a generous WCN donor, has 6 rooms with adjustable beds and includes a 3-room separate building for the pygmies which are built so they can have a fire inside the room which they require to feel comfortable. The Mbuti would not come in for care if they could not have a fire. We continue to support health care for Mbuti pygmies that used to work for us.
We met with the Women’s Group of Epulu to get their input into designing a building for them on land near the KfW compound which provides good security. We will fundraise for the building this fall. After seeing how beneficial the building we built in Mambasa was for the Women’s Group of Mambasa’s productivity we are trying to build a building for one of our 5 Women’s Groups each year. Our team will be busy constructing the residence for the Assistant Warden until the beginning of next year.
Overall security has improved with no active militia groups in or around the Reserve, but poachers from distant areas are still targeting elephants and primates. Several leaders of poaching gangs have been arrested recently, and the sale of bushmeat has been banned in Epulu – an action we hope will spread to other villages along the road. Mining by the Chinese along the rivers and miners opening mines deep in the forest are the most serious threat to the Reserve. Logging is not a concern at his time because the roads are not passable by the heavy logging trucks. Slash and burn agriculture, the most serious threat to okapi, is still occurring outside of the Reserve where immigrants settle and clear much larger fields than the local farmers.
Epulu is in an active Ebola zone due to a major outbreak in nearby Mambasa. Because of this, our staff can be vaccinated and most have been. Hand washing stations are at the entrance to the station and Doctors Without Borders is supervising the response and providing training to our health care staff and Reserve staff in general. A child died of Ebola in Epulu in November which was contracted in Mambasa 70 km away. After 21 days passed without another case, Epulu was declared Ebola free.
Lucas reviewed plans for World Okapi Day with Berce and Monga. We also spent a good deal of time formulating a strategy to take on the components of our education program that had been funded for 6 years by USAID/CARPE in light of the end of the CARPE funding in December. We plan to take on the 5 educators funded by CARPE, continue the radio broadcasts on 5 stations and continue to produce 3,000 calendars annually. Looking to 2020, we would like to expand our education program by publishing writing booklets with protected animal species on the covers with a map of the Reserve and information on OCP inside, produce wall size posters of the Reserve and a teacher’s conservation guide. We want to make a concerted effort to visit with each school several times a year and to start up the soccer league again. Programs to sensitize farmers and hunters are needed Reserve wide. All these activities will require targeted proposals to raise the funds needed to implement these critically important programs. With the support of the families living in the 256 villages around the Reserve and the 10 customary chiefs we can all work together to secure a future for okapi in the DRC.
While we were in Epulu images were retrieved from the camera traps in Mewa (a clearing in the forest with mineral licks). Videos of elephant, okapi, forest buffalo and many other species were captured. The calmness of the animals was a good sign that hunting probably was not occurring in that area.
To try to engage the Mbuti to become more involved in conservation, I provided 5 pygmy chiefs $20 each to monitor okapi in their territories and to keep our staff appraised of any threats that may be a problem for okapi. I will meet with them on my next trip to see how they did and see if this an activity worth investing in long term.
In November Rosie Ruf and I met up in Kinshasa to work with ICCN staff to draft a renewal of our Contact of collaboration with ICCN (Feb 2020) which needs to reflect our revised role in the OWR as well as provide us with the standing we need to plan, implement and monitor our efforts to encourage behavior change that protects okapi and its forest habitat.
The two trips were immensely productive. We were able to clarify our role and to set priorities for 2020. As I told our staff we cannot control what other partners do, but we can control what we can do to encourage communities to cooperate with Reserve Management and to preserve and protect the forest so that okapi can thrive in the OWR.