By John Lukas
Before leaving for DRC in May, my spare room was overflowing with gear for the rangers in Epulu as I tried to safely pack it in as few bags as possible for the many plane transfers I would have to negotiate by myself. After eight flights, seven security checks and a total of 62 hours of travel time, I arrived in Epulu on May 28th with seven 50-pound bags of much-needed equipment for the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) to support protection of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR).
The 306 pounds of equipment was handed over to ICCN in front of a large group of rangers who were very appreciative of the equipment, which will improve their capacity to properly protect the OWR and monitor key wildlife species. The rangers had fun unpacking all the gear and setting up tents and trying out the binoculars and cameras. Taking advantage of ICCN facilitating our way through customs without a hassle, we were able to bring in ten new camera traps and new GPSs to geo-locate camera traps left in the forest for long intervals. OCP now has enough camera traps on site to set up two ‘Team Okapis’.
In addition to the equipment provided by funds from USFWS, other partners provided two sets of uniforms for each ranger. All the new material really does help improve the morale of the rangers, and in my conversations with them, they remain committed to protecting the forest and wildlife. Anything we can do to improve their safety and efficiency will allow the rangers to be in the field longer and cover more ground on patrols, which is the only way to protect okapi and other species during these tumultuous times in DRC.
So far in 2018, rangers on patrol are averaging each month the collection of 1,000 snares, the arrest of 12 poachers and the evacuation of 500 illegal miners. Observations of okapi, forest elephants and chimpanzees remain consistent with numbers recorded last year.
The ICCN patrol post leaders, rangers and partners gathered in Epulu while I was there to review the results of an aerial survey of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve funded by the Okapi Conservation Project through a grant provided by USFWS. The survey took place from May 22-24th and involved leaders of each patrol post flying over their sector so they could see the illegal mines for themselves. The survey involved over 13 hours of flying time and the plane clocked 2,223 kilometers over the ground. A team of two observers and a recorder covered 56.6% of the Reserve. The survey focused on documenting human impacts such as mining, logging and illegal settlements and overflying large tracts of untouched forests. The scope and locations of illegal activities were reviewed with patrol post leaders to formulate a strategy to visit each site and remove those involved in the activity. Another survey will be carried out in October to monitor progress toward removing threats to the forests and wildlife of the Reserve identified in the May survey.
Construction of the new office/storeroom with a separate immigration building and toilet facilities at the Zunguluka Guard Post is now complete. The new buildings will facilitate vehicle inspections at the eastern entrance of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and provide a secure area to store confiscated wildlife products until they can be brought to Reserve headquarters in Epulu. ICCN rangers will have space to store equipment and a place to meet to plan patrols. The immigration building processes all people entering and exiting the Okapi Wildlife Reserve through the eastern checkpoint on the NR4 road that runs through the Reserve. The buildings were handed over to ICCN in an official ceremony attended by high-level ICCN staff from Kinshasa on September 9th.
Each ranger is responsible for 122.5 square kilometers of the Reserve which is almost double what other rangers in other countries are responsible for. To improve this ratio, 50 additional rangers have been recruited from villages around the Reserve and have just started their 3-month training period under the guidance of a French military trainer. The training is being supported by the German Biodiversity Fund which has renewed their support for the OWR for a three more years.
ICCN felt very responsible for my safety after the recent kidnapping of British tourists in Virunga National Park, so I traveled under heavy protection with one truck with armed rangers and soldiers in front and another behind my vehicle as we moved about. Because I had what seemed like a presidential escort, I was able to visit our education and agroforestry offices in Epulu, Mambasa and Niania and the agroforestry fields in each town, but we were not able to visit the new nursery in Wamba because of security problems along the road in the gold mining area outside of the Reserve.
While in Mambasa, I met with the colonel in charge of a brigade of 900+ soldiers who are actively pursuing poachers and have made several key arrests lately. On a recent mission to the north of the Reserve, they attacked the camp of the poacher, Alise and found the tripod of the photographer who escaped the attack on the Bapela mine in July of 2017 where four rangers and a porter were killed. This identified the poachers as the gang that attacked the rangers and stole all the reporters’ equipment. I am glad to report the mine remains closed and is secured by rangers, and by utilizing the ten additional camera traps, ‘Team Okapi’ is planning to monitor how the wildlife is responding around the closed mine at Bapela. It has been closed for over a year now and it would be interesting to document if okapi and other large animals have returned in any real numbers.
Working with M’bete, our construction supervisor, we laid out the new education facility in Mambasa and chose a site with the ICCN Assistant Warden for the building that will be used to store confiscated items, guns, motorcycles and mining equipment until they need to be produced as evidence at trial. We also measured out an area where the new internet office for ICCN rangers which will be located near OCP offices to piggyback off our internet services.
This was one of my most productive trips to Epulu I have had in a long time as I was able to meet with so many staff at our field offices around the Reserve. I brought back some camera trap videos that show okapi and other species peaceably living in the forest which accompany this update. While driving over 650 kilometers over roads through the forest, I was amazed at the extent of the forest that remains intact.
Seven days after I returned home, I came down with malaria, and luckily, I had a treatment dose in my refrigerator I brought back from Kenya last summer. As soon as I felt my body shaking with chills, I knew what it was and took my first dose. It only took a week to be back to normal, but I felt tired more easily for several weeks. My doctor was amazed how fast I recovered, but I credit the African treatment dose I had which was 4 times stronger than the one available in the US.
During August, I returned to DRC, this time traveling to Kinshasa, the capital city, to meet with the Director General of ICCN and several partner organizations to discuss a way to better structure the management of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. As a group, we are drafting terms of reference for a Public Private Partnership (PPP) which will have three members, OCP, WCS and ICCN. It is planned that the structure will be in place early next year. A consolidated operational structure will provide an avenue for large international funders like the EU and World Bank to support protection of the resources of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The political climate in Kinshasa was calm as people wait to see if the elections in December results in a fair and legal new government taking office in January 2019. We are keenly aware that a peaceful election is essential in improving conditions that will help advance conservation in the most biologically important country in Africa.