By John Lukas
It has been a busy end of 2017 and a hectic beginning of 2018 with many grant reports due and several significant new grant proposals to submit. Grants and family obligations over the holidays have caused me to be behind in telling you about my trip to Epulu last November. I think of the trip often as I was moved on several occasions by the sincerity of the community leaders, the astonishing bravery of the rangers and the many difficult and dangerous miles traveled by OCP staff to bring positive change to so many peoples’ lives in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
In Epulu, I attended the annual meeting of the Committee for Conservation at the Site (CoCoSi) for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) which includes representatives of ICCN, OCP, WCS, Customary Chiefs, Mbuti Chief Zaire and representatives of local governments and local NGOs. The overall atmosphere was one of hope and determination to move forward notwithstanding the severe lack of economic opportunities and sporadic attacks on rural communities by rogue militias. Okapi have traditionally represented the power of the Customary Chiefs and there is a strong affinity to protect okapi among local leaders. The community leaders were all very supportive of Reserve management and appreciative of the investments made by the partners in their communities – especially the rebuilding of the water sources. The community leaders pledged to do their best to restrict their members’ involvement in illegal activities. To be able to better control their communities, they asked that ICCN finish the designation of Agriculture and Hunting Zones and better define the western boundary of the Reserve. This was a remarkable expression of how they value the rule of law and need to have all boundaries clearly marked so they can keep their communities’ activities within the appropriately designated areas.
As a further demonstration of the improving attitude of local communities, the Wamba delegation (Northwest sector of the Reserve) asked if the Core Conservation Area could be extended westward toward Wamba. Yes – they were asking that the area where no human activities are allowed to be increased in size – imagine that happening anywhere else in Africa. I can’t help but feel that OCP’s educators who have had an office in Wamba and an extensive outreach program for years have influenced the leaders of that community to recognize the value of protecting the forest and the wildlife as a way to honor their historic legacy of respect and admiration of nature.
From the communities’ perspective, their greatest concern is crop raiding by wildlife. In a land where staying alive depends on producing enough food to feed your families, losing any production is a serious issue. The rangers face many more grave threats such as poaching and mining by armed insurgents, but the rangers need to make it a priority to respond to complaints from communities about damage to their crops caused by primates and elephants. Keeping communities on the side of conservation is one of our top priorities. OCP will assist in improving the rangers’ response by providing 5 new Thuraya satellite phones to patrol posts so complaints to ICCN headquarters by communities can be relayed quickly to rangers in the area to organize a timely response.
I spent a week preparing the budget for 2018 with ICCN and OCP staff and reviewing their accomplishments for 2017 which we shared with you in the December OCP Update. I travelled with Rosie and Mbete to the Zunguluka Guard Post to look for a site where we could build a new immigration office and an office and storeroom for the rangers working the check point inspecting vehicles entering and exiting the Reserve. We then drove further east to the town of Mambasa just outside the boundary of the Reserve to look at the site where we bred cane rats as part of an alternative food project about 10 years ago. We own this plot of land and are planning to build a new office for the educators and agronomes based in Mambasa in 2018. We have enough room to build a hall for the Women’s group to meet under cover, out of the weather which will add greatly to their productivity.
While in Epulu I was made aware of an interesting study made by ICCN about the makeup of people who are involved in illegal activities in the Reserve. Of the 1,500 people interviewed 96% were men and 4% were women, most were married. Most attended secondary school but didn’t graduate and stated their occupation as farmers. They came from population centers within 500 miles of Epulu and 90% were involved in mining and 8% were involved in the bushmeat trade. My takeaway form the study was how important our agroforestry program is in helping farmers make a living and avoid having to take a chance working in dangerous mines to make money to support their families. We intend to expand our agroforestry program into Wamba in 2018, and expect to see a significant increase in the number of farmers that join our program. We are seeing more and more farmers form cooperatives which gives them an opportunity to produce more crops which can be sold in larger volumes in major markets where they bring a better price than in small villages.
Another indication of how things are changing for the better is what I saw on a visit to a camp behind the station where a small group of Congolese soldiers were based to help protect the station. Coming upon their camp I heard a noise above and looked up to see a troop of colobus monkeys scrambling through the branches above me, this is not that unusual. But as I walked into the soldier’s camp more colobus were there walking among the soldiers on the ground, sitting on tables as if they were part of the group guarding the Station. Not too long ago monkeys would flee screaming at the sight of a soldier as many were shot at during the recent war. For a long time you could not raise a camera with a telephoto lens to take a picture of a monkey as it looked too much like a gun to the nervous monkeys in the trees. In late afternoons as I walked around the Station I saw as many as six different species of monkeys jumping from tree to tree as they moved to a safe place to spend the night in the tall trees by the river bank (I think our presence keeps the leopards away). We can only surmise that if the primates, including the chimpanzees, are relaxed and calm, okapi must be doing well as they cause nowhere near the problems for people the primates do. It has been a long time since the primates were this relaxed around people and I can only feel that the protection afforded by the rangers and the tolerance of the local communities are making this change possible. I am looking forward to my next trip to see how the primates are faring and what else we can do to sustain this delicate balance so recently established through respect and trust on all sides.
Since I was there for the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving, my Congolese friends did their best to make me feel at home. Staff from OCP, WCS and staff from ICCN office in Kinshasa who attended the CoCoSi meeting joined Rosie and me for a dinner under millions of stars. We started off with popcorn I brought from home, made over a charcoal fire. Luckily I made a lot, as the skinny chickens we purchased in town had very little meat on them. We topped the popcorn off with lots of fresh vegetables and boxed wine, all in all, it made for a memorable and interesting Thanksgiving. During all my travels I have come to believe that all people are basically the same around the world and sharing a special meal is one way to really see how close we all are. On my next trip I am bringing in more camera traps, satellite phones, GPSs, compasses, tents and cameras to Epulu for ICCN so I should have an interesting time in customs at the Bunia airport to tell you about.