By Jeremy Hance
On June 24th of last year, MaiMai Simba rebels, led by an elephant poacher known as Morgan, launched a devastating attack on the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Epulu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The attack, which was reportedly in response to a crack down on poaching and illegal mining in the park, left buildings burned, equipment destroyed, and six people dead including two rangers. The militia also left with 28 women hostages, many of them minors. As if to add insult to injury, the militia didn't leave until they shot dead all 14 captive okapis at the headquarters, which were used as wildlife ambassadors for the local community.
Over a year later and security and peace has begun to return to Epulu with the armed militias being run out of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, according to renowned conservationist John Lukas. Working with okapi protection for 25 years, Lukas is head of the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), which was instrumental in founding the park and helps manage the protected area along with the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN). However, the militia that conducted the tragic raid, including its leader Morgan, remain at large.
A World Heritage Site, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was set up in 1992 in order to protect one of the world's most important populations of the notoriously shy okapis (Okapia johnstoni). The 13,700 square kilometers reserve is also home to large populations of forest elephants, forest buffalo, and over 300 bird species.
The okapi, which is most closely related to giraffes, was only discovered by scientists in 1901 and remains a cryptic yet beautiful animal. It is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. The okapi is only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More....