An okapi carcass in the Epulu reserve following the attack of an armed militia, on June 24. Photo courtesy ofthe Wildlife Conservation Society.
For the past five months, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been a battle zone, with thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting between rebels and the army. In a zone renowned for its exceptional nature reserves, the instability has led to an increase in poaching and all kinds of trafficking.
According to the Congolese Wildlife Authority (locally known as ICCN), five parks in the northeast of the country are currently threatened by the regional instability: Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Virunga National Park, Maiko National Park, and the okapi foal reserve in Garamba National Park. Four of these are UNESCO world heritage sites. They are home to protected species, including mountain gorillas, okapis, hippopotamuses, and elephants.
The main protected areas of DR Congo, in green. Map posted onWikipedia.
DR Congo, which has seen two brutal wars in the past two decades, is experiencing a new cycle of violence ever since a group of army deserters, known as the M23, launched an attack in April against the Congolese army in the eastern province of North Kivu. The rebels have since taken control of several key cities in the region and have been terrorising the local population. The rebel group is headed by General Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed the “Terminator,” who is currently the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for the conscription of children. The majority of battles are taking place in North Kivu, which is a strategic area because of its abundant mineral resources (gold, cassiterite, coltan, and oil).
“M23 rebels organise visits for tourists”
Pastor Cosma Wilungula is the director of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (known as ICCN). Based out of Kinshasa, DR Congo’s capital, he regularly inspects the protected areas in the region.
Since the M23 rebellion has flared in North Kivu, other armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [Editor’s note: known as FDLR, this is an army mostly made up of Hutus from Rwanda, including many who participated in the Rwandan genocide] and the Maï-Maï [an armed indigenous group], have been taking advantage of the instability to infiltrate the protected areas. Right now, we only have control of about 20 percent of Virunga National Park; the rest of the area is controlled by the M23, the FDLR and the Maï-Maï militias. Several guards have been shot at in the last week, and two were injured. They are fighting a war against us, too.The armed militias are interested in these wild areas because they can hide there, but also because they can poach. Ivory from elephants is particularly in demand these days. Currently, a kilo of ivory is worth 850 euros. Since just one tusk weighs between 30 and 40 kilos, it is a very lucrative business. The militias are also trying to extract minerals, namely gold, the price of which is increasing. These armed groups are working together because of this common economic interest, and they also have ties with local mining businesses. It’s very difficult to fight them.“Ivory from elephants is particularly in demand these days”M23 soldiers who have set up in the protected areas have until now been less interested in poaching than the other militias. They are more focused on their political agenda. That said, locals have told us repeatedly that some rebels were organising trips for tourists in Virunga National Park. There are many visitors in the region during this period, namely on the Ugandan and Rwandan sides [Virunga Park is bordered by Mahinga National Park in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda], but spots to go see the gorillas are hard to find. However, on the Congolese side, tour operators are now offering visits to areas where gorillas live, with the consent of the M23 rebels — visits that are not supervised by official guards. These tourists are probably unaware of the networks that they have had to use to go see the gorillas. They need to realise that, from an animal health point of view, this is catastrophic for the gorillas. During these safaris, the basic rules are not respected. These so-called guides get as close as two metres away from the gorillas, even though humans can transmit germs up to seven metres away. This is an extremely vulnerable species, and any such contact can cause devastating epidemics.One of the buildings of the Epulu reserve. Photo from the Wildlife Conservation Society.“A local armed group broke into the Epulu camp and massacred 15 domesticated okapis”In late June, another horrific scene occurred in the Epulu reserve, known for its okapis. A local armed group broke into the Epulu camp and massacred 15 domesticated okapis [during the attack, seven people died, including several guards]. The militia’s goal is to lower the morale of the park team so that they will allow poaching in the zone. This is a low blow, because okapis are extremely difficult to domesticate [between 3,000 and 4,000 wild okapis currently live in the reserve]. After the attack, the Congolese army came to help us. It is currently looking for the perpetrators. According to the latest news, the group is now wreaking havoc on the southern roads.An okapi carcass in the Epulu reserve after an attack by a militia on June 24. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.These attacks have a catastrophic effect on the park’s fauna, naturally, but also on life in the park. Lately, several sources of foreign funding have been cut off, which has led to a decline in the guards’ working conditions [however, after the attack on the okapi reserve, an emergency response fund of 30,000 dollars was provided]. I am doing everything I can to motivate them, but it is difficult: not only are they risking their lives on a daily basis, but they no longer receive the small bonuses that help them hang on, psychologically.This okapi escaped the June 24 attack, but died a week later. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
However, we remain hopeful, because even though there have been many animals massacred in the last months [in the Epulu park alone, 2,500 elephants were poached in six months; there are only 3,500 remaining], the park’s fauna, for now, are not at risk of extinction. It is not yet time to give up.
The challenges of Virunga National Park
Promotion video filmed by Virunga National Park.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.