Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) - Epulu Update
August 9, 2012
Voice of America
Suspect in Wildlife Reserve Attack Escapes
August 4, 2012
We have just received a report that Morgan and part of his group were captured. We are awaiting confirmation from ICCN and will relay the facts as soon as we are sure of the accuracy of the report.
The situation remains calm in Epulu with Congolese army troops stationed along the road. The presence of the military and the return of armed ICCN guards to Epulu have improved the security in the area, allowing some residents to return to their homes. OCP staff in Epulu are cleaning up and preparing buildings for repair work which we will begin when it is safe to do so.
Food and medicines are being distributed every two weeks to displaced residents and will continue until people are able to harvest from the gardens near their homes. The clinic is operating in Epulu with OCP staff doctor and nurse on duty. One of the eleven remaining hostages was found in the forest by Mbuti pygmies and has been treated at the clinic and released to her family.
ICCN leadership is in the process of rearming guards and mobilizing supportive Congolese troops to reinforce security in the OWR. As a result of the looting by the Military under control of a General in Kisangani the government of DRC has transferred control of the area encompassing the Reserve to the Military leaders in Bunia who are much more supportive of ICCN. The support the guards are receiving from OCP and other partners is allowing them to increase their presence and patrols in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
The response to our emergency funding appeal has been overwhelming. Currently we are using these funds towards:
- Regular provisions of food and basic needs to the many displaced families, along with medical support in the communities in which they are temporarily located.
- Replacement of basic household needs i.e. mattresses, clothes, lanterns, pots and pans.
- Support for the families of rangers killed in action.
- Contribution of $30,000 to ICCN Emergency Fund which is reequipping the guards so they can continue to patrol and restore security to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
The future activities of the Okapi Conservation Project will be in accordance with the security situation in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. At this point we are focused on helping people displaced by the turmoil, supporting ICCN anti-poaching efforts, assisting communities around the Reserve and cleaning up the Station.
OCP staff based in communities around the Reserve continues to work in the areas of education, agroforestry, health care and maintaining communication with customary chiefs. We are in regular contact with ICCN leadership, as well as working together with partners towards a common goal of security and protection for the people and wildlife of the Reserve.
At this point the plan is for me to return to DR Congo in six weeks for meetings with ICCN, OCP staff and partners and to assess the situation in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. We will continue to update all our supporters about how we are adjusting operations based on the conditions in the DR Congo. All OCP and ICCN staff and their families are grateful for your generosity and it has given them encouragement in this tumultuous time.
July 22, 2012
After reviewing the damage from the attack last month it appears possible to repair the buildings and bring in equipment and material to reestablish our base in Epulu. The loss of human lives at the hands of the rebels, the psychological scars of the residents, the deaths of the okapi, extensive looting by the Congolese army - all of these things make Epulu a far different place, though, than it was previously. This is the fourth time we have been looted in our 25 years in the Congo but we never lost personnel or okapi, even during the seven year long civil war.
We are presently helping the families of victims cope with their losses and have distributed over 4,000 lbs of food and are paying for medical care for the families displaced from Epulu. Food rations to OCP and ICCN families in Mambassa, Epulu, Nia Nia and Beni will be distributed twice a month while they wait for security to be restored to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. We remain deeply concerned for the remaining hostages being held and are working with all partners and ICCN in finding a way to return them to their families.
We have a lot of work to do but can only move forward when the government of DR Congo takes action to reestablish security in the region, reign in wildcat military officers, rearm the ICCN rangers and arrest and punish murderers and poachers. All the partners and ICCN are working together to get the government of DRC to act now so we will be able to continue our long established work to conserve wild okapi and preserve the biodiversity of the Ituri Forest. The people of Epulu are grateful for this support in their time of need.
Full Trip Report
July 9, 2012
The situation in Epulu remains calm with several staff moving back to start cleaning up and making basic repairs to accommodations. The UN forces have withdrawn and a small group of Congolese army troops are based at ICCN headquarters. Most of the people from town that were taken as hostages to transport stolen goods have been released and made it back to Epulu. Over $60,000 generously donated by so many concerned supporters of OCP and WCN has arrived in Beni DRC and is being used to pay for medical care at the Mambassa hospital and provide food, medicine, transport and shelter to displaced families. Money is being distributed by OCP to allow ICCN and OCP staff and their families to repair their homes and buy cooking supplies and furniture. An inventory of remaining medical supplies at the Dispensary is now underway as well as a determination of what can be salvaged and what needs to be replaced or rebuilt at the ICCN headquarters.
A meeting with ICCN and all partners is planned for this week to develop a rebuilding strategy that will provide security to people working to protect the environment as well as those working to educate and assist the communities around the Reserve. We will be meeting with staff to hear what they think about how we organize and function under a new reality of potential retribution from poaching rings. I will provide all of our supporters a full report of the results of the meetings and a summary of what the OCP staff envision as the best way we rebuild to safely meet our goal of securing community support for okapi conservation and assisting ICCN in protecting the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. I will let all the people I meet in the DR Congo know of the great outpouring of support and concern you have shown for their safety and well being. You have shown your willingness to help them in their time of need and I feel this will go a long way in getting communities to understand the need to set aside and protect part of their world for okapi and the rest of the wonderful diversity of life in the forest. Thank you for your support as it provides encouragement in this time of uncertainty.
July 3, 2012
Congolese Army and UN Troops continue to pursue the Mai Mai Simba rebels led by Morgan, but have to be cautious as over 30 hostages were taken from Epulu to transport stolen goods through the forest. At last report the rebels had crossed the Ituri River on the southern border of the Reserve and were heading west. ICCN Conservator Somba is in Epulu now coordinating the ICCN salvage operation and making assessment of rebuilding needs. Several guards from remote patrol posts have gone to Epulu to help restore order and clean up.
OCP staff still in Epulu are closing up damaged buildings and salvaging what they can. It appears that a truck with smashed windows still runs and the generator suffered only minor damage, as did the satellite relay dish.
Over 150 staff and families are now in Mambassa and the Project is providing funds for shelter, food, medicines and transport to other villages where relatives reside.
It is important to emphasize that the Project's three satellite offices, in Mambassa, Nia Nia, and Wamba were unaffected and continue to operate essential education, agro-forestry and community assistance programs around the perimeter of the Reserve. Likewise, the five ICCN guard posts around the Reserve are fully manned and continue to undertake patrols and vehicle checks.
It has been verified that the attack led by Morgan was an act of revenge against ICCN for targeting his elephant poachers and illegal gold miners operating in the Reserve. The continent-wide war on elephants, driven by escalating prices for ivory, provided Morgan with the funds to buy weapons and mount his attack on Epulu. ICCN leadership and partner organizations are encouraging Congolese Army officers and U.N. leaders to continue to pursue and apprehend the rebels.
The response to our appeal to help those who lost everything in this attack has been overwhelming. The OCP and ICCN staff and their families want to express a heartfelt thank you for your generosity and concern for their wellbeing. The Okapi Conservation Project will continue to pay our staff and ICCN staff from Epulu while we work out a satisfactory rebuilding plan and budget. Rebuilding the Epulu Station is critical as it functions as the logistical center for the Reserve, providing supplies, equipment, rations and direction to staff working in remote sites.
I, personally, want to thank each and every one of the people and institutions that have contributed to support the people that have devoted their lives to the preservation of okapi and all the wildlife of the Ituri Forest.
Rosie Ruf and I are traveling into the DR Congo to meet with staff, ICCN leadership and partners. Once I return from the DR Congo, I will share with you what your donations have done to ease the suffering of so many affected by this horrific attack. We will also share with you our plans to rebuild our infrastructure and that of the ICCN so that the Okapi Wildlife Reserve will continue to provide a secure future for the okapi in the wild and all of the wildlife that share its forest home, including elephants.
June 28, 2012
Following the attack on Sunday morning by Mai Mai Simba rebels on the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) headquarters and Okapi Conservation Project base of operations in Epulu it was 48 hours later on Tuesday morning when the Congolese Army (FARDC) and Monusco (UN) troops finally took control of the area around the town of Epulu. Security is being extended along the road in order to allow residents to return to their homes in Epulu. The tragic outcome of the attack on the Epulu Station and Okapi Wildlife Reserve Headquarters has now been verified by ICCN and OCP personnel on site in Epulu. The destruction rendered by the rebels is far worse than anyone could have imagined.
Casualties and damage from the attack include:
- 6 people were killed – 2 ICCN rangers, the wife of one of the rangers, an immigration worker, and 2 residents of Epulu.
- 14 okapi were killed.
- All ICCN buildings were damaged or burned.
- All OCP buildings and offices damaged or burned.
- Motorized equipment stolen, damaged.
- All food stores looted and storage containers destroyed.
- All computers and printers stolen or burned.
- Satellite phones stolen.
- All medical supplies taken from Dispensary.
- Shops and homes in the town of Epulu were looted and damaged.
The destruction of ICCN and OCP facilities is extensive and there seems to be not one thing of value left. There is no food left in town so there is nothing to eat for those coming out of the forest. We are feeding the families that escaped to Mambassa until they can go back to Epulu. There is a meeting today of our staff in Mambassa to organize supplies and basic shelter needs to take with them when they return to Epulu. The OCP will be sending funds to DR Congo to finance the purchase of food, supplies and medicines so that ICCN and OCP staff can set up a base of operations in Epulu.
There are no words to describe the loss of the okapi at the station, some of which have been in residence for over 23 years and all made it through seven years of civil war unscathed. They were ambassadors for all wildlife in the forest and had been helping educate visitors to the Station of the marvels of the diversity of life in the rainforest for over 25 years.
It must be made clear that the Mai Mai Simba rebels are not fighting for a political cause. This group is made up of elephant poachers and illegal miners. They were seeking revenge on ICCN for their valiant efforts to eliminate poaching of elephants and illegal gold mines from inside the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The attack on the Epulu Station was in retaliation for recent engagements by ICCN rangers that disrupted poaching and mining activities in the Southern part of the Reserve. The rebels want to be free to reopen the mines and poach wildlife without interference. The OCP was also targeted because of our significant support of ICCN operations and personnel.
Since March of this year ICCN and its partners in Epulu have been requesting assistance as it was clear there was intent of a retaliatory action from these rebels. The lack of response to these pleas has now resulted in a terrible loss of life. It is now critically important that all partners contribute funding towards the rebuilding and re-equipping of ICCN Headquarters in Epulu.
The Okapi Conservation Project will begin to reorganize as we deal with the destruction of our infrastructure and the loss of ambassador okapi, which were so important to our mission and educational programs of the project. Our first priority is to restock the clinic and food stores and to help ICCN and OCP staff rebuild their personal lives.
After a thorough assessment of the damage to project facilities and equipment in Epulu we will define a rebuilding strategy and budget and we will be reaching out to our friends and supporters for help in returning the programs back to full operation. Meanwhile the OCP will continue to provide funds to the ICCN so that it can carry out anti poaching activities that protect okapi, and all the wildlife of the Ituri Forest.
All of our thoughts are with the people of Epulu and the families that lost loved ones. We thank our friends for their concern during this tragic time and know that with your support the Okapi Conservation Project and ICCN will again be working together to safeguard the forest home of the okapi.
The Wildlife Conservation Network has offered to collect contributions for the emergency fund while we focus our efforts on rebuilding the Station and keeping programs operating that aid the local communities.
Please make your contribution to: www.WildNet.org/support/ click on okapi on the pull down menu.