Okapi Attack Sends Shock Waves through the Ituri Forest

incredible okapi_in Epulu, RFO
The picture was taken more than a year ago by Kim Gjerstad. This Okapi was shot dead a week ago.

At 5 o’clock Sunday morning, the 24th of June, at least 50 men, mostly naked and draped in leaves entered Epulu, the headquarters of the Okapi Faunal Reserve, a World Heritage Site in the Ituri Forest. They came out of the forest from the south, about four kilometers east of Epulu and were led by the elephant poacher called Morgan. They were armed with AK 47s and at least two PKM machine guns. These details are corroborated by several separate accounts.

For an entire day scenes of horror and panic ripped through Epulu. Many people fled into the forest, others were taken hostage to carry the loot of the attackers. Women were raped. Seven people were killed. Among the dead are two park guards and the wife of another. Two of these were burned. Some reported that Amisi’s wife was burned alive, perhaps caught in the chaos as the outlaws incinerated park infrastructure and guard homes. Others seemed shot almost at random: Two people on a truck passing through Epulu, two other Epulu residents. The administrative buildings of the Reserve were looted, then burned. Houses and stores in the village were pillaged. These facts are in the report of a mission urgently sent from Virunga National Park to assess the damage. Photos support the facts; only a few (taken by WCS staff) are shown here.

The main station after attack
The offices emptied and burned. Photo WCS.

What is hard to understand : the shooting of the captive Okapi. These animals are emblematic of Congo’s natural wealth, endemic to its eastern forests, and here, Epulu, was the only place in the country where Congolese could come to see them. Fourteen were shot dead. And the last, the old female that survived, was so traumatized that local reports expect her to die. These animals had survived the civil war of the 1990s and early 21st century: occupation of Epulu by Mobutu’s fleeing army, followed by Maimai, followed by Ugandan troops and finally followed by Bemba’s troops (Bemba since sent to International Criminal Court in the Hague).

Two days later
Killed two days ago. Beginning to swell. Photo WCS.

Why kill the Okapi now? Peace that is so lawless, should not be called peace.

Mid-day Monday, the day after the first shots, the last of the attackers returned on the same forest path, heading south, probably to cross the Ituri River, possibly to continue into the province of North Kivu.

Not until after the outlaws’ departure, did the army troops (FARDC), stationed near-by, enter Epulu. They continued the pillage, and then returned to their barracks. Not before Tuesday did UN soldiers and a different faction of the army, from the town of Bunia, arrive on the scene.

Is there any possibility of bringing Morgan to justice? If so, who considers it a priority?

And who is Morgan? An elephant poacher, thrice arrested by the park guards, taken to local courts and liberated. Originally he is from a village down the road from the Okapi Station, Epene.

And who makes up Morgan’s rogue army? A motley force of various ethnic groups, most come from within or near the RFO (Mbo, Ndaka, Bila….).

And where did they get their sophisticated weapons? Why didn’t the nearby Congolese Army react more quickly? Effectively?

There can only be Peace with law and order. Are we naïve to hope for law and order in Congo?

UPDATE 3 July 2012:  From radio okapi news bulletin, 16 hostages taken by Morgan and his gang returned home yesterday without condition.  They indicated, however, that there are still 12 hostages of whom 11 are women, and of those, nine are minors.

UPDATE 8 July 2012: Morgan’s men have attacked again, this time in the Okapi Reserve but west of Epulu. Friday night they attacked trucks along the road and took hostages. Waiting for more information.
Today, Sunday, it is two weeks since the attack. There has been no capture and no credible effort to capture the perpetrators. The military now stationed in Epulu says that it does not have the communication equipment necessary to enter the forest.

UPDATE 13 July 2012: The picture below of Morgan, from prior to the attacks, acquired by the park staff in Epulu, ICCN.
Morgan Sadala

 

27 Comments

  1. Posted July 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Senseless and sickening beyond words.

  2. Norman Rosen
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I am shocked and sadden, but knowing John
    and following your wonderful work in the Congo. I wish you all the luck and I hope you will get the support that you deserve and wake up the DRC Govt!!! Warmest Regards/Norm Rosen

  3. Posted July 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    The last female Okapi died. See here on Radio Okapi:

    http://radiookapi.net/environnement/2012/07/03/attaque-de-la-reserve-depulu-le-dernier-okapi-est-mort/

  4. Julie Moran
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    This is so horrific – beyond words to describe… I sit here safely, tears streaming down my face, and my heart goes out to all of the people and Okapi killed and affected by this senseless and despicable act.

  5. Julie Moran
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Terese and John, my heart also goes out to you and your family. I cannot even imagine how you must feel. You are in my thoughts, and your continued work inspires me. The world is a better place because of you….

  6. Leo Mastromatteo
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Terese and John, I’m so sorry, it’s beyond belief. After everything else, now this, my heart goes out to you. If there was anything I could do. I know I spent 12 yrs in the country, one or more at your camp. The effort and work that you and John have done there is worth volumes to DRCongo and the world, so sorry in deed!

  7. Terese Hart
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Julie and Leo, Yes it is despicable and the uncertainty of any real retribution is frustrating beyond words. Here is what is heartening: the two NGOs (WCS and GIC) with long-time commitment — that you know well — are both coming forward to solve immediate problems (stabilize the guards, feed the displaced, get them home) AND both are speaking of the long term. How to secure the forest ….

  8. gregory
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps, after the U.S. Rangers track down Joseph Kony, they can move over here an track down some of these butchers.

  9. clara song
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I heard about this story from Sarah’s Facebook page. I am so saddened by this and can only say that I am filled with admiration at the strength of everyone who works so hard to help keep the Congolese (both wildlife and people) safe. The chaos and lawlessness afflicting the Congo is upsetting in so many ways. Thank you for your hard work and I pray for your safety and well-being.

  10. Posted July 4, 2012 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    John, Terry,
    We are deeply saddened by this psychotic act of violence. We know that it is a true struggle to forge ahead in the face of this insanity and we send you all our strength and desire for justice and retribution.
    Jojo and Max were here building bikes for their(rainy) departure along the south shore and to Isle Royale.
    Love Tom, Mad, Simon and Becca

  11. Jen
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    I am truly sorry and sickened to hear of this horrific violence. What could make a difference and prevent this from happening again somewhere else?

    My thoughts are with those who work in the region- I can’t imagine how out of control and helpless it must feel. I wish you all the best in recovering as much as possible from this beyond despicable event and continuing your very important work.

  12. Brenton
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting about this shocking situation at Epulu, Terese. People are responding from around the world and I gather over US$100,000 has been quickly raised for the OKP. I have been supporting the Okapi Conservation Project over the last year and I was horrified to learn what had occurred. The slaughter of people trying to protect the forests and the wildlife is a crime beyond belief.

  13. Terese Hart
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Yes a crime — beyond belief, but a situation not likely to go away. Over the past few years the Okapi Conservation Project, WCS, GIC and GFA have all continued to work in a Peace that was not Peace. The challenge is to rebuild so as to truly have the best possibility for securing the whole Ituri Forest – home of the Okapi. An enormous challenge.

  14. Chris Everett
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Terese

    This horrific and senseless attack needs publicity and having photographed the okapi in 1958 it is particularly heart rending and tragic.
    I have been worrying about the safety of you and John. Is this a warning &/or drug fuelled?

    Stay safe
    Chris Everett

  15. Becca Brackett
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    This attack is terrible. It is indeed not peace when lawless bands attack and murder people who are caring for the country’s rare animals.
    I worry about you all.
    Here I camped at Lake Itasca in peace and quiet, and met Georganne Maxon for her guidance around the park.
    I pray that these criminals are brought to justice.
    Becca

  16. Florence
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    These attacks are criminal and cowardly! I am so very sorry for all of the people and the animals that poor poor Okapi, sometimes i wonder if people will ever get how important animals are and that its our duty to protect them! Thank you for all the hard work you do and good luck with your wonderful work!

  17. Kim Honda
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Over the years we talked about the resilience of Okapi Wildlife Reserve and its rangers through civil wars and human tragedies, and the fact that this destruction has come from a band of poachers leaves me absolutely speechless. The entire world is dominated by the insatiable human greed.

    I had a chance to talk with Liz B. today and she expressed her concern about the seriousness of the poachers’ message and the future of forest elephants among other things since the Ituri holds really the last of the elephant population in the region. She also mentioned the sign of a “ripple effect” (my words) being felt in the Virunga area. I really hope the situation will not get any worse from here.

    Tom Struhsaker was crazy enough to continue his work in Uganda during the Amin rule and Dr. Conway kept sending money to keep him there. (I saw Dr. Conway today, too. Didn’t have a heart to bring up the horrifying subject.) On one hand I hope the work in Ituri continues, but at the same time I don’t want anyone, you or John or any other colleagues risk their life and the situation right now seems rather desperate.

    Suddenly, Terri, I’ve remembered the stupid CI presentation at the SCB conference about the overlap between ‘dangerous’ places and hotspots.

  18. Terese Hart
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Morgan – the criminel- does not expect retribution. It is enough to move out of the narrow network of cellphone and navigable road and criminels are somewhat protected. Move a little farther beyond habitation and farms and protection is far better. Move into a vast wilderness like RFO or TL2 and he is not only safe but has food (wildlife) and a source of income (ivory, bushmeat, possibly minerals…).
    If the military have no operating expenses — can’t mount an operation — there is little we can expect unless we supply the means. After being pillaged by the same military, it is right to hesitate — yes?
    It will be a happy day if Morgan is caught, it will be a happier day if one year later he has not been released.

  19. Fred Koontz
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Terri,

    Words are empty in the face of such senseless human action. Only faith — faith that in the end — compassion for all people and species will prevail. Please know that hundreds of people that you and John and all your colleagues have inspired over the years share in this sorrow. We all must keep stepping forward.

    Fred

  20. Lajos
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Can’t believe this! Some foreign legionaeries or a SWAT team should go into that country and do some headshots. Or back the colonial troops! Can’t believe, but Africa was a much safer place 70 years ago than today, not to mention for animals. “Darkest Africa” in 1870 ??? Than what is this today??? Time to give up political correctness and do something proper!

  21. john hart
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Fred, and all, thank you for your comments. The wanton destruction of Epulu and its aftershocks continue to evoke commentary among Congolese. These were beloved animals and Epulu a special place that signified hope for many. The commitment to conserve Congo’s unique and vulnerable natural treasures has not been destroyed. But this bitter disaster must also be an opportunity to rethink how precious treasures such as the okapi can be protected in a fast changing and often conflict-ridden world. This may require new ways of thinking and certainly open debate. See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/opinion/the-only-way-to-help-congo.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all for a bottom-up perspective on how local chaos and violence in Congo can assume major repercussions, and what can be done about it.

  22. Ron Mininger
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Heartfelt sympathies to you and everyone living and working in Epulu. Your courage and commitment in bearing witness to these events is vital.

  23. De-Deiu BYA'OMBE
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Morgan merite la mort.

  24. Steve Wolcott
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    Senseless and very disturbing! Was at Akakora when the attack took place. Logging, poaching, and the overall raping of Congo’s natural resources for personal gain of a few individuals must be curtailed!

  25. Steven Smith
    Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Terese, John,

    I am so sorry to learn this news. How terrible. Please give my sympathies to everyone. I am glad this is coming to light through your website and the link with CNN.

    Steve

  26. genna anderson
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Terry,I’m sorry I never wrote you when I heard about the attack on the Okapi station from Nina
    at the library just after it happened.What a sad loss. I ‘moor rosary.
    Now there is a new threat,coming from Rwanda and rebels who have taken Goma and want to take Bukavu and then the rest of the DRC.Kabila isn’t much but that’s quite a goal.Congo does not deserve this.
    I love the new monkey,the Lesula.I think I read about you and the monkey when it was found some time this summer.
    Take care.

  27. genna anderson
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    A little proof reading would have helped.I’m so sorry is what that weird sentence says;not something about a rosary.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...]   #1 Congo: Park rangers and okapis killed by elephant poaching gangs 1 Minute Ago Here is the story: Militia massacres rangers, 13 endangered okapi at Congo wildlife reserve Searching for Bonobo in Congo Okapi Attack Sends Shock Waves through the Ituri Forest [...]

  2. By Back from the Congo | Monkeyologist on July 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    [...] the senseless killing of reserve staff, locals, and wildlife. For more information, please see Terese’s blog entry or this MetaFilter post for background [...]

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