If anyone was in any doubt that there is a real war going on to save our most precious wildlife then those doubts should have been put to rest last Sunday. As details now become much clearer over what happened at the Ituri lowland tropical forest in D.R. Congo it is becoming obvious that those who protect our most endangered species need the full support of governments across the world.
First reports that came out of D.R. Congo suggested that 10 people had been killed in a clash with rebels hiding out in the park. The reality was that this was an intentional attack on the headquarters of the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature, ICCN, which is the country’s wildlife agency. The attack was in retaliation for the agency’s increasing success against elephant poachers in the area. [pullquote]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,[/pullquote]
The attack on the headquarters led to the 100 plus staff running to the forests to escape. 6 people were murdered by the rebels – 2 wildlife rangers, a rangers wife, an immigration worker and two local residents. Women from the station who were caught by the rebels were also raped.
The Epulu Station of the ICCN was also home to the Okapi Conservation Project who are trying to conserve this zebra like mammal – though it is more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra. the species is found nowhere else on Earth in the wild. The Epulu Station was destroyed. Before being burned the building were ransacked and anything valuable stolen. Transport was also stolen.
The Epulu Station was also home to a number of Okapi which were used for education and conservation purposes. 13 of these small striped giraffes were killed and another injured.
The rebels then headed to the local town, Epulu, destroying and looting homes and businesses.
John Lucas, founder of the Okapi Conservation Project, described the situation, “It must be made clear that the Mai Mai 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,” Lukas explained. “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.“
The biggest concern of this attack though is that the ICCN had been asking for extra support from the government after it became clear that the rebels were planning to attack the centre to stop the work of anti-poaching activities. Since March the Station had been repeatedly asking for extra assistance.
“The lack of response to these pleas has now resulted in a terrible loss of life,” Lukas said. “It is now critically important that all partners contribute funding towards the rebuilding and re-equipping of ICCN Headquarters in Epulu.”
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is an internationally important site for wildlife. It was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996 and has been on the World Heritage List in Danger since 1997.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, who met in Geneva this week. held a minutes silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the attack.
As this is an internationally important and recognised site the international community needs to come together and provide the support and resources needed to ensure that wildlife conservation officials and rangers have the equipment and trained man-power they need to continue the task.
With the number of rangers killed in the D R Congo over recent years the country is becoming a killing field of rangers and it needs to be tackled.