The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has seen an 80% decline in the population of forest elephants over the last 10 years. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the northeast part of the country offers the last remaining stronghold for these elephants. This stronghold was threatened in 2014-15 when rangers and security patrols were focused on closing down the illegal gold mines in the South-West sector of the Reserve. The evictions are important, for while searching for gold in the forest the miners feed themselves on bushmeat, emptying the forest of its wildlife, but a side effect was that it left the rest of the Reserve exposed.
Okapis for Elephants
This is where the Okapi Conservation Project came into play, increasing the number of ICCN (Congolese National Park Agency) rangers and partnering with the National Army. The project, supported by the Elephant Crisis Fund and the German Bank (KfW), amongst others, supported the patrol costs of an increased number of ICCN rangers, trained through KfW funding, patrolling the Reserve and paid 90 soldiers of the Congolese National Army, who provided the necessary manpower and firepower to make an impact on controlling poaching and mining in the Reserve. However, as the number of soldiers increased, ECF funds along with OCP funds were used to buy food rations for the joint patrols.
Patrols are key to deterring both poachers and miners. Between December 2015 to March 2016 the new rangers had participated in 195 multi-day patrols, an increase of over 100 patrol days per month over last year, walking 5,357 kilometres through thick forest. During these patrols 981 snares were collected, 53 poachers arrested, 7 poaching camps destroyed, 365 miners evacuated, 33 mining camps destroyed and a large volume of mining tools confiscated, a significant result reducing the threats to elephants security over a wide area of the Reserve.
A special security operation of rangers and soldiers in December 2015 resulted in the arrests of 49 individuals and the destruction of 106 mining structures. Regretfully two soldiers and two rangers were killed in the line of duty while on patrol between said period.
The improved capacity of ICCN to protect the wildlife has allowed patrols to move into areas that have not been patrolled for over two years. The eviction of miners across the Reserve has seen a decline in bushmeat trade and the protection provided by ICCN and the Congolese army has permitted Okapi Conservation staff to fully operate all of its education, agroforestry and community assistance programs that benefit communities living in and around the Reserve. Joint ICCN/FARDC patrols will continue their anti-poaching efforts and it is planned to recruit, train and employ an additional 50 rangers this year.