NEWS + DISPATCHES
The demise of M23 sends an intimidating message to other armed groups
The M23 rebel group in the Eastern DRC end their 18-month insurgency after an October offensive. OCP president John Lukas outlines the factors that led to their defeat, and explains its impact on conservation efforts.
OCTOBER 23 // THE NECESSITY OF SPORT
The restoration of Epulu and ongoing development of the Reserve in the face of quotidian threats and challenges has shone a light on the importance of sport -- namely, football (soccer) -- in the people's lives and the OCP's effort. A simple game that in other parts of the world commands billions in business deals is, on remote fields in rural areas of the Congo, a near tool for survival, boosting morale and cooperation between communities and urging healthy competition among both adults and youth, boys and girls.
In mid-October, OCP, aka "Team Okapi," sponsored a friendly between the Epulu and Mambasa men's teams in Mambasa, on the eastern edge of the Reserve. A huge crowd of 5,000, which included more than a thousand visiting Epulu fans, ringed the newly refurbished playing field, with motorbike taxi drivers buzzing about, urging on all the spectators, flying the Team Okapi flag in acknowledgment of the greater meaning of the day. Epulu had bested their opponents in their first meeting, several months earlier, but this day would be Mambasa's, the final scoreline 2-0. Later in the evening, the teams, fans and community leaders gathered to reflect, enjoy refreshments, and socialize.
Next up for Epulu: Niania, west of the Reserve. Team Okapi will make known the results.
IN A PRE-DAWN RAID, JUNE 2012, the notorious poacher Paul "Morgan" Sadala and his band of Simba/Mai Mai rebels stormed the Epulu Station HQ of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. When the smoke cleared, homes and buildings stood charred and looted; Station guards, villagers and fourteen ambassador okapi - the entire population at the Station - lay dead amid the ruin. Hostages in tow, Morgan and his men disappeared into the Ituri Forest.
Neither out of necessity nor greed, the attack was retaliation against decades of Okapi Conservation Project support for government efforts to control illegal activities within the Reserve. After years of relative calm in a region where stability is as elusive as the okapi itself, Epulu succumbed to violence.
Epulu has since begun to rebuild, with OCP heading efforts to restore infrastructure and commerce, support those who suffered injury or lost loved ones, and return to the community a sense of stability and progress.
Meanwhile, Morgan is at large, and with his rebels continues to wage a campaign of violence throughout Northeastern Congo. But their deeds, and OCP calls for action along with those of the international conservation community, have sparked unprecedented response. He has been driven from the Reserve and remains the focus of a national military manhunt.
SEPTEMBER 19 // FROM THE FIELD: John lukas intERVIEW
"The new UN forces have the mandate to take the offensive and have been indicating they will be going after Morgan's group in the near future."
SEPTEMBER 5 // YOUTH FOOTBALL SIGNALS NEW BEGINNING
Worldwide, sport and recreation are a vital refuge and outlet for for youth in disadvantaged and conflict areas. In the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a linchpin football (soccer) program developed and supported by the OCP has meant, among other things, girls and boys not resorting to illegal activities, having to search for and sell game meat, or going to mining camps to work or sell alcohol. After the June 2012 attacks, however, the program was halted.
In August it was officially and ceremoniously reinstated. OCP, which supports boys and girls clubs in Epulu, Salate, Banana and Badengaido, hosted a competition between Epulu and Mambasa. It was an upset for Epulu, which claimed victory, 3-2, over the standing league champions before a crowd of 1,000 that included ICCN and WCS staff, customary leaders, police and army officials, and residents of Epulu and neighboring villages. Moreover, it signaled the return of this important initiative, encouraged camaraderie among young people from around the Reserve, and instilled a sense of normalcy in the community.
The Epulu teams, confident from their wins, soon travel to Mambasa and Niania for more play and to help spread the word that security is returning to the Reserve.
AUG. 28 // FIELD REPORT
The ICCN and FARDC arrest three poachers and confiscate artillery and six pieces of elephant ivory. Those captured are followers of an infamous ringleader, Masimango (alias Maitre), and had operated since June 2013 between the Molokay and Bandisende villages in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Based on unsubstantiated rumors, they may have killed as many as 40 elephants and are holding 600 kg of ivory. OCP provided additional funding for swift transfer of the captives to court in Bunia, and additional food rations to feed 40 FARDC soldiers who had recently arrived from Bunia.
AUG. 14 // OCP IMPACT ON LIVELIHOODS
Thanks to the many conservation seminars given around the Reserve by OCP educators on the effects of deforestation, the District Office for Environment in Bunia has produced more than 10,000 seedlings of fruit and eucalyptus trees, which were distributed to the population for planting. This achievement will serve as an example in other large population centers such as Wamba and Mungbere to help solve firewood scarcity and increase tree planting in the region to respond to climate change. OCP will continue to focus on promoting replanting of trees as a grassroots effort to reverse the effects of deforestation and provide resources to communities that participate.
Monitoring peanut-corn-cassava field
Despite treacherous roads and rumors of Mai Mai rebels in the area, OCP technicians and educators traveled to meet with local communities and encourage them to keep up their efforts to improve their livelihoods through sustainable agriculture and to respect the conservation laws protecting the wildlife around their villages.
The Agroforestry team set up several vegetable nurseries and monitored the mixed crop fields created by farmers who received seeds and agrarian tools from OCP in 2013. The production of cash crops such as peanuts and cassava flour allows farmers to invest in the schools and clinics that serve their communities.
The Education team led Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) technicians on a tour around the Wamba zone, located on the Western boundary of the Reserve, to discuss the future establishment of agriculture zones with customary leaders. All leaders in the north have committed to establishing agriculture and forest zones to benefit conservation of wildlife and natural resources.
The road between Epulu and Molokay
Aug. 9 // Rebuilding epulu station
OCP staff has taken significant steps to rebuild the Epulu Station. The compound - including the old okapi enclosures, campsite and clinic yard - has been cleaned up and is being regularly maintained.
A new bamboo fence now surrounds the entrance to the station. Mechanics repaired damaged ICCN trucks after adding a new roof over the shop area. OCP masons reinforced the foundation of the damaged ICCN headquarters with a new concrete base in preparation for constructing a replacement office building in the near future.
Full engine and transmission repair on ICCN pickup (top); repairing foundation on ICCN office building
JUly 8 // CRITICAL ASSESSMENT, MILESTONE RESOLUTION
The first Okapi Conservation Strategy Workshop, convened to evaluate the species for endangered status, finds okapi down to 10,000 from an estimated 40,000 a decade ago. Meanwhile, 200+ military and government leaders and provincial heads resolved in Mambasa to restore vital security to the Reserve. A month doesn’t go by without some level of unrest to contend with.
JUNE 10 // PROGRESS, A YEAR ON
As the anniversary of the initial attack on Epulu Station approaches, photos taken by John Lukas, OCP President, shows progress in rehabilitating the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and surrounding village -- an effort which has faced, and withstood, the violence and instability in the region. The images show workers laying the foundation for new structures, and the main ICCN building, whose restored facade makes it ready, once again, for operations. (At left: A bird's-eye view of Epulu, 13/06)
may 10 // empowering WOMEN OF THE RESERVE
In conducting seminars with women's associations throughout the Reserve, OCP visited five thriving local businesses started by women whom the organization had given sewing machines. OCP also awarded money to two female students who assisted the organization for several years, to help cover their school fees. Across the board, community to community, the women have voiced their desire for a greater role in external meetings about conservation concerns.
Despite their gains and ongoing OCP support, the women of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve are in need of supplies vital to sustainability, like seeds and sewing machines.
Feb 27 // OCP AND CLUB PENGUIN DISTRIBUTE SCHOOL SUPPLIES
Throughout January and February, Morgan and his men stage a series of attacks on villages throughout the Reserve and eastern Congo that leave several dead and take over a dozen hostage. Despite the dangers, OCP and peer organizations continue efforts to bring stability to the Reserve, including the distribution of supplies to more than 100 schools. The government, in the meantime, receives a pledge from UNESCO to undertake another joint operation to neutralize the rebels.
JANUARY 15 // kinshasa redoubles efforts AFTER NEW ATTACK
Following an attack by Morgan on the village of Zunguluka, January 5, that kills one ICCN ranger, Kamango Ntambwe, and leaves a number of FARDC and Mai Mai dead or injured, Congolese officials step up efforts to apprehend the poacher and his rebel gang. While OCP helps assist Ntambwe's family and coordinates relief for Zunguluka and other communities impacted, the military chief of staff remains in Mambasa to coordinate FARDC operations.
DECEMBER 17 // INFRASTRUCTURE
OCP facilities, including the bridge over the Epulu River, are nearly all repaired. Rebuilding of ICCN headquarters is planned to begin in January, with support from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
DECEMBER 1 // THIRD JOINT OPERATION LAUNCHES
On the verge of the dry season, FARDC soldiers and ICCN rangers launch a third joint operation deep into the forest outside of the Reserve to bring the last remaining rebels to justice.
NOVEMBER 1 // OCP OUTLOOK
OCP lays out plan - to be developed by end of 2012 and implemented in 2013 - to build better capacity within ICCN.
OCTOBER 5 // PROGRESS REPORT
ICCN reports they are in control of 70% of the Reserve.
Local government officials, police and FARDC troops shut down trade routes for bushmeat and ivory from the northeast sector of the Reserve, forcing poachers to abandon the area.
September 15 // CITES LISTS OKAPI
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement to ensure that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, lists okapi as a threatened species.
AUGUST 13 // MORGAN HITS AGAIN
Morgan and his men attack the village of Badengaido. Later in the day they loot a coach bus, and take 15 hostages. Morgan is wounded in the army's counter-attack, but manages to escape.
AUGUST 4 // MORGAN CAPTURED ... MORGAN ESCAPES
Morgan and 18 of his men are captured by the rival Jean Luc Mai Mai group, when they venture into North Kivu province. Taking advantage of a lag in response by the Congolese army, Morgan pays off his captors and escapes during the night.
Paul "Morgan" Sadala
JULY 22 // SUSPECTED MILITARY COLLUSION
Officials in Kinshasa launch investigation into military chain of command and the relationship between the Congolese army and rebel poachers.
JULY 14 // ASSESSMENT; PLAN TO REBUILD
John Lukas and Rosmarie Ruf meet with ICCN and OCP staff in Beni to formulate a plan to reestablish security and rebuild the Station and ICCN HQ.
The Epulu Station medical clinic reopens. Food rations are provided to OCP and ICCN staff and their families.
JULY 1 // HOSTAGES RELEASED
Morgan releases 45 hostages. Eleven remain captive.
JUNE 24, 2012 // THE ATTACK
The attack unfolds at 5 am. An hour-long firefight leaves ICCN rangers and several villagers dead. Over 50 hostages taken. At 10 am, the attackers slaughter the 14 okapi at the Station.
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