CRISIS RELIEF IN CONFLICT ZONES
Protected areas in the middle of conflict zones face unique obstacles; in 2012, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in DRC was attacked by rebel militias, who murdered the park’s staff and killed the reserve’s breeding herd of Endangered okapi. An immediate response from the RRF enabled the execution of an emergency plan to restore critical reserve function. Today, approximately 3,000 okapi continue to be protected in the reserve.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is an outstanding area of rainforest in central Africa, containing a high density of endemic and threatened species including a mysterious ‘forest giraffe’ - the okapi. The okapi is an Endangered species only found in the forests of the Congo River Basin, but over the last few decades the species has declined as a result of poaching and human disturbance.
The reserve is located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the borders of Sudan and Uganda. This geographic location has contributed to the site’s high levels of biodiversity, but in recent years the area has been prone to huge political instability. This volatility has made the park (and its fauna in particular) highly vulnerable to exploitation from armed militias, who poach animals for both sustenance and profit.
The RRF reaction was prompt and rapid. It allowed the RFO to mount an emergency plan for such a quick and immediate response just after the incidents. It was essential to act at that time because the Reserve was abandoned to itself and without authority.
On 24 June 2012, the headquarters of the reserve in the village of Epulu was violently attacked by armed MaiMai rebels, who brutally killed at least seven park staff and their family members. Others were taken hostage by the aggressors.
The reserve’s headquarters was looted and destroyed, and 14 okapi within the conservation breeding centre were killed. Only one female survived, having suffered three bullet wounds.
The RRF was able to respond swiftly, with the decision being made to award funds to the Wildlife Conservation Society (an NGO working at the site) and their local partners l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN – DRC’s protected areas authority) on the same day that the application was submitted.
As soon as funds hit the ground a three month emergency response plan was put into action to restore basic protection functions in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and maintain a strong presence at the site.
Field posts were re-established rapidly in the safest areas and personnel increased. ICCN guards launched joint patrols with approximately 200 government soldiers, which culminated in the destruction of the six main rebel camps and the recovery of heavy weaponry including rocket launchers, mortars and machine guns.
In addition to the US $30,000 awarded through an RRF grant, a joint public appeal implemented by the RRF raised an additional US $13,210 to support the rebuilding of the park headquarters, allowing the resumption of normal park operations.
Due to the RRF grant, the ranger patrols were able to be quickly reinstated. These patrols, supported by the army, successfully eradicated militias throughout the southern part of the reserve. This area had been occupied and inaccessible to site managers for over a year before the attack. One notorious poacher was arrested and put on trial.
In the long-term, the swift response ensured the site management’s activities and aims were not undermined by the militias. The quick restoration of species protection measures meant that the overall rate of okapi decline in the reserve has been less marked than in other areas of their range. The 3,000 strong okapi population within this reserve are today considered as the most effectively protected by the international conservation community, underlining the role of short-term action in times of acute crisis.