In 1888, Welsh Explorer Sir Henry Morten Stanley led the first expedition across the forests of the northern Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the most biodiverse country in Africa, holds over 1,500 types of plants and animals including the okapi, are only found here in the world. The “forest giraffe”, one of the oldest mammals left on Earth- is known to the western world only since the 20th century. It is a national and cultural symbol to DRC and has been protected since 1933.
It is also a species whose existence is under threat from the impact of human activities. The okapi’s survival entirely depends on the forest sanctuary, and deforestation, along with poaching and mining, have led to its quick and dangerous decline and is now officially classed ‘Endangered’ by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list of Threatened Species.
Okapi Conservation Project works with ICCN and communities throughout the Okapi Wildlife Reserve-13,700 square kilometers of the Ituri Forest in the northeastern DRC-to ensure the protection of okapi and preserve rare plant and animal life, as well as the lifestyle and culture of the indigenous people in this equatorial rainforest. Key to this are conservation initiatives that benefit the livelihoods and environment of the okapi’s human cohabitants. The OCP relies heavily on zoos around the globe to educate the international public and this unique, captivating creature and the importance of its rainforest habitat.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, established in 1992 and listed as a World Heritage Site in 1996. Encompasses an estimated 3900-6350 okapis out of a global population of around 10,000-20,000. It is also the location of the Epulu Conservation and Research Centre. Until 2012 it served a function as a capture station until a rebel attack broke out leaving the captive okapis dead. Here the ICCN, with OCP support, decided to focus exclusively on preserving the wild okapis in the reserve. OCP activities radiate out from Epulu to support the neighboring communities and towns in around the reserve. For example, through trade and association with neighboring cultivation communities like the Bantu, the Mbuti and Efe pygmies (the last true “forest people” left on Earth) activities generally enrich the overall composition of the forest by providing pockets of secondary vegetation a source of plants on which the okapi feed.
Closure of the Bapela mine
Mining continues to be a serious threat to the wildlife and integrity of the forest ecosystem in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Progress has been made in closing many of the illegal gold mines. However, in the Northeast of Epulu is a mine site called Bapela. ICCN has made several attempts to evacuate the miners from Bapela, but the site becomes quickly reoccupied when the rangers leave. It was decided that the use of spiritual beliefs will be used to protect the okapi habitat. The warden of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve initiated a mission with nine chiefs of local villages and indigenous Mbuti pygmies accompanied by a Community Conservation team (OCP, WCS and ICCN) to close the gold mine. The delegation met with the miners outside Bapela mine and announced that the customary chiefs are closing the mine and advised the miners to leave as the healers were putting a curse over the area. Those who decided to stay would suffer from the curse placed and the rangers assigned secured the evacuated site.
The miners feared the curse and decided to vacate the area and the member of the local population proceeded to fill in the holes that the miners left. The commitment of the population to reinforce the message of the warden left the mine in a state that would make it difficult to be reopened again. In this case, the respect for customary beliefs reinforced by community action was an effective detriment to the destructive actions of the miners that have a negative effect on the quality of okapi habitat and reduced the killing of wildlife for food to feed the miners.
The closure of the Bapela mine by the customary chiefs without violence was successful. It was done in the presence of all people who are involved in the protection of the forest and used traditional beliefs to protect the rainforest from exploitation. Letting communities close the mine based on spiritual views will hopefully provide the necessary time for plants and trees to recolonize this mining site providing a place where okapi can live in the future.
Conservation education and community assistance
The investment and support of the communities in DRC offers investment and support to OCPs efforts to protecting okapi in the wild. Okapi Conservation Project works with donors and partners to provide broad-based community assistance- building and supplying school and health clinics, developing fresh-water source etc. Conservation education enlightens communities to the importance of symbiosis with the environment and being active stewards of their natural heritage. Even sporting events, are used to engage communities, foster cooperation and disseminate vital messages. For example, World Okapi Day in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to garnering support through social media postings and events held at zoos around the world that generously support OCP, it was determined that a series of organized races would run simultaneously in the territories of Mambasa, Epulu, Niania and Wamba; these four territories are within the okapi range and where the bulk of the okapi population resides. This engages the local communities, and a community celebration on World Okapi Day was a way to create lasting excitement for okapi.
The event was to be a celebration that included the community at large, as well as a way to broadcast a message of conservation and civic pride. The culmination of the event was a series of races with local teens in each territory for okapi related prizes and payment for their school fees. Each of the World Okapi Day celebrations started with a community parade, aimed at increasing the number of attendees and spreading the message to a larger percentage of the community. Prior to the start of the races there were speeches that highlighted the purpose behind World Okapi Day and to inspire the community to continue to preserve the okapi and their natural resources. Each speaker strived to inspire pride in their communities and emphasize the role the community plays in protecting okapi. An estimated 15,000 children and adults around the Reserve participate in the various World Okapi Day events.
Furthermore, OCP offers an education team that travels throughout the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, providing workshops, lectures and presentations on the importance of biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of forest resources. The team also distributes education materials to all of the twenty-three schools in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
A rapidly growing regional human population increases pressure on already limited forest resources. Factors such as destructive subsistence farming practiced outside of demarcated agriculture and a traditional reliance on bushmeat in and around the Reserve. Through and agroforestry program that promotes sustainable farming practices while reducing dependence on forest resources, Okapi Conservation Project helps reduce long-term impact on the complex and delicate Reserve ecosystem. By introducing alternative crops such as trees, fruits and vegetables, and better farming methods and technologies, the program sets out to make villagers’ lives less volatile, healthier and more prosperous. The program was a success in making key inroads into pockets of the Reserve that have not previously been receptive to broader conservation efforts. Assisting communities improve their food security decreases the need for young people to be involved in illegal activities to help support the needs of the families.
In 2017, OCP agronomists continue to expand the agroforestry program, supporting 500 farmers at a given time. OCP distributed 7,848 tree seedlings and collected 1,000kg of rice seeds and 250kg of beans to distribute the farmers around the Reserve when the raining season starts. Once the seedlings are planted, there is a 75-80% survival rate. For example, students are planting fast growing Terminalia tree seedling around the community social meeting hall in Epulu.
In addition, a new tree nursery is being built in Niania. The 4th tree nursery operated by the Okapi Conservation Project to provide tree seedlings around the Reserve, allowing us to distribute 39,565 tree seedlings to farmers and schoolchildren to reforest abandoned plots of land. Increasing the habitat for local okapi.
In 2018, OCP have created a very aggressive work plan that takes advantage of additional security provided in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. OCP will be working to improve the capacity of ICCN to remove organized groups involved in poaching, mining and logging inside the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. OCP will continue to provide support for salaries, patrol rations, fuel and transportation for ICCN rangers and officers. Field equipment will be upgraded and patrol occurrence and coverage increased to extend coverage of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve by 10% over 2017 by the end of the year. OCP assists ICCN by supporting two aerial censuses that identify illegal activities to inform ICCN protection strategies. Monitoring of results will be based on a review of patrol data which can quantify areas covered by patrols, contacts made with poachers and miners, snares removed, and a record of key wildlife signs and sightings.
With the support of a grant from USFWS, OCP will build an office at the Zunguluka gate to better control access of people and vehicles entering and leaving the OWR and also help enforce a ban on travel at night on the road through the OWR. As the security on the road through the Reserve is upgraded we expect to see a larger decrease in illegal activities inside the Reserve and a related improvement in ICCN capacity in enforcing wildlife laws resulting in a decline of trade in animal products.
OCP teams of educators and agronomists will continue their efforts to expand their programs in the Reserve. A new education/ agroforestry office will be built in Mambasa which will have space for the local Women’s Group to meet. 2,000 calendars and 3,000 protected animal posters were distributed by OCP educators to schools, communities and local businesses around the Reserve. In addition, from 5 stations each month radio messages are broadcasted to as many people as possible that highlights the importance of the natural environment and the significance it plays in maintaining their livelihoods.
A new nursery in Wamba on the northwest side of the Reserve will be constructed by the Okapi Conservation project. Over the past two years, with the two new nurseries being built, an expected 60,000 tree seedlings should be planted by the end of 2018. Documenting changes in land use patterns and monitoring the performance of farmers will supply information on how well the program is decreasing slash and burn intrusions into the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.