The struggle to save the ‘Congolese unicorn’

In the DRC, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is faced with poaching, human encroachment and armed rebels

The soldiers on patrol on the main road that bisects the park, between Epulu and Badengaido.
Elaisha Stokes

EPULU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Deep in the jungle, Col. Lucien Gedeon Lokumu is rallying his troops. About 50 men stand in mismatched uniforms while Lokumu attempts to inspire them with a pitch-perfect sermon: We’ve got to stabilize the forest, but not at the expense of the people who call it home. 

“We are not businessmen. We are not politicians,” he declares to a rapt audience. “We are soldiers. We must do the work because these rebels are killing the country.”

The work is Operation Safisha, which, translated from Swahili, means “Operation Cleaning.” And that is exactly what Lokumu intends to do: clean out the rebel groups and illegal miners who are plaguing the interior of the 5,300 square miles of forest that make up the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Established in 1992, the reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hot spot for biodiversity. It occupies a fifth of the vast Ituri rainforest, 25,000 square miles of virgin jungle, and is home to elephants, chimpanzees and grey parrots. But it was created in large part to protect the okapi, a shy creature seldom seen by humans and found only in the DRC. During Belgian rule, colonizers often referred to the species as the Congolese unicorn. In fact it is a forest giraffe and looks like a horse with striped legs. Congolese regard the creature as a magical symbol of their nation.

The last census of the reserve suggests that about 5,000 of the last 30,000 okapis live within its boundaries. But the creation of the reserve doesn’t seem to have boosted the okapi population; instead, their numbers have dwindled, with the rate of decline exceeding 50 percent in the last 24 years. Experts say that mining, poaching and increasing encroachment by humans are to blame. The last available census numbers from 2003 estimate that 17,000 people live inside the reserve, and an additional 37,000 are within a few miles of its boundaries. That number is likely much larger today.

Col. Lucien Gedeon Lokumu, chief warden of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
Elaisha Stokes

The reserve aims to protect more than just the animals. Along the forest edge, the last of the Mbuti people are eking out their survival. Referred to locally as pygmies, the Mbuti continue to rely on traditional hunting and gathering, in stark contrast to the rest of the country, which is rapidly industrializing around them. They are arguably the only group of people living in the reserve with a historical claim to the land, and it was their presence that prevented the reserve from becoming a national park, where people would be prohibited from living. But pressure on the natural environment from poachers and miners who work in the area has made it increasingly difficult for the Mbuti to support themselves from the forest alone, putting their future at risk.

Lokumu, a pastor turned park director who has completed military training, has assembled a coalition to accomplish the task, calling on the Congolese national army to assist his already-armed park rangers. The main area of focus is Muchacha, a mining camp nestled in a forest clearing an eight-hour hike from the main road, which bisects the reserve. Muchacha is run by rebels and fueled by desperation: work opportunities in the region are few. Migrant workers come from towns like Kisangani to the west and Mambasa to the east to toil for a pittance in the mines, which are currently controlled by men associated with the Mai Mai Simba rebel group. But mining in the reserve is illegal. It is damaging the ecology and the peace of the forest, the warden says, and he is determined to see it stop.

The ranger station

At the eastern entry point of the reserve is Epulu, a sleepy village of about 2,000 residents. It is primarily a truck stop on the East Africa trade route where drivers can find a hot meal or a soft bed. But it is also home to the reserve’s largest ranger station. It is nestled on the banks of the Epulu River, where fishermen try their luck battling torrential rapids while monkeys jump lazily between tall palm stands, searching for something to eat.

“Epulu had a history,” recalls Rosmarie Ruf, who lives and works at the ranger station as part of the Okapi Conservation Project, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of the species.

Epulu was founded in 1952 by Belgian colonialists as an okapi-capture station; it exported animals to zoos around the world. But after the country’s independence in 1960 the station was largely abandoned and fell to ruin. Once the reserve was established in 1992, Ruf participated in the first okapi-capture campaign since independence. Four okapis were brought out of the wild and into large, outdoor pens that flanked the station. They mated, and soon, there were 14. Ruf was charged with caring for the animals. 

“Go to the forest and see if you can see an okapi,” says Ruf. “You won’t. You know how we walk through the forest? Like elephants. We make noise. Okapis don’t like humans.”

Rebels in the forest

When it was first formed in the late 1950s, the Mai Mai Simba was a great source of pride for the Congolese people, regarded as armed freedom fighters. But today’s incarnation of the group has little in common with its forefathers. The rebels who run the mining camp at Muchacha are a loose collection of heavily armed men with no clear leader and no one mission. In the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, their aim is the liberation of the local population from the reserve, which they claim is interfering with people’s livelihood by imposing increasing restrictions on their activities. After the creation of the reserve, the land was divided into three zones: farming, hunting and conservation. In each of these zones, land use is regulated. For example, in the farming zone, villagers are prohibited from growing coffee. Hunting is allowed, but not of restricted animals, and not with the use of a gun, which in practice means that only the Mbuti are able to hunt, as they use nets and arrows instead of technology to capture game. All mining is illegal.

But instead of liberating the local populations, Radio Okapi, a national news station, frequently reports rape, kidnapping and murder at the hands of the rebels.

“For us who live here, we suffer the most,” explains Douglas Muzama, the president of a local youth group in Epulu. “These rebels, they kill the animals, they take the gold far away, and they hurt the population. If the government can remove those people from the forest, then the population will be on its side.”

An okapi, or forest giraffe, in the wild. Okapi are shy creatures, rarely seen by humans in their natural habitat.
George Holton / Science Source

The main source of income for the rebels is the Muchacha mining camp, where more than 8,000 people live and work. Every miner who works in the pits is required to hand over a “tax” to the group, which it claims is for protection from park authorities, who threaten to arrest those who participate in the illegal activity. Giant machines churn earth and pump water from the nearby river, while young men balance precariously over gaping holes, some 30 feet deep. 

The workers, meanwhile, see very little of the money earned from the gold they mine. The rebels sell the precious metal to merchants from nearby cities and keep most of the profits for themselves. “None of the people making noise are historically from the reserve,” says Lokumu.

For months the Congolese government issued ultimatums for Muchacha to disband or else face an army intervention. The deadline to leave the camp was extended once and then a second time. Cosma Wilungula, the director of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, based in the capital, Kinshasa, insisted that military intervention would be “kept brief and only if absolutely necessary.” But by mid-November, it had become clear that there was still illegal mining going on in Muchacha. “They left us with no choice,” says Wilunga. “Our mandate is to protect the people and the environment within the reserve. If we need to send the military to help us do that, we will.”

First people of the forest

Musa Makubasi is clad in palm leaves, with a delicate leopard pelt to adorn his head. The Mbuti chief of Banziyi camp stands at the front of a long line of his people. The rhythmic sound of song and drum is filling the forest. 

“We need a good catch this year,” says Makubasi. For months, the Mbuti of the Banziyi camp have come back with very little from their forest expeditions. He knows that this is because of the pressures on the forest from the people who work in Muchacha, but he believes the best answer right now is prayer. Makubasi has gathered his people for a traditional ceremony to mark the beginning of the village hunt, hoping he will please the ancestors and that his people will then receive a rich bounty from the forest.

“The problem is we have made the gods of the forest angry,” says Michel Ngumu, one of the elders of the camp. For most of his life, Ngumu has hunted in the forest wearing only a loincloth, trapping small antelope and gathering caterpillars to roast on a fire. “A pygmy’s life is in the forest,” he says.

A young Mbuti boy.
Elaisha Stokes

Today the Mbuti wear Western clothes and live at the forest’s edge, just 10 minutes by foot from the center of Epulu. Hunting and gathering is still a means of survival, but according to Ngumu, the younger generation doesn’t care much for the ways of their ancestors. “The new generation prefers to carry cargo to mining sites,” he laments. “When they get money they become drunk.” 

Makubasi says it’s true; some of the younger generation have gone to work in the mining camp. But for the most part, the Mbuti remain excluded from any commercial activities in the forest because many Congolese see them as second-class citizens. “The truth is we are the first people of Congo,” says Makubasi. He is in favor of the reserve and would like to see his people continue with the traditional lifestyle, which has served them for centuries. The problem, he says, is that the forest has become too dangerous. “We are the people who provide the first information. If I see the enemy in the forest, I report it,” he says. These days it’s not uncommon for a hunting party to stumble across an armed rebel group. “Most of the time they leave us alone,” says Makubasi. “But not always.” 

The men of Banziyi camp have moved deeper into the forest and circled around an altar constructed of wooden sticks. For weeks the community has saved small Congolese Francs that they’ve earned doing odd jobs. The money was pooled and a chicken was bought. “Abo,” they chant, while Makubasi recites the names of their ancestors who have passed. The chicken is held high over the altar; Its throat is slit and the blood smeared on each of the men’s foreheads. It’s a blessing and a message to the ancestors: We still honor you. Protect us.

A rebel uprising

Back at the Epulu station, Lokumu has sent the first dispatch of troops to the village of Badengaido. Located at the western gate, it is the center of opposition to the reserve. None of the locals are pleased to see that the military has arrived. Many have family members working in Muchacha. Others are directly related to the Simba rebels. People scatter into their mud houses to avoid the army. 

Badengaido is perhaps best known as the stronghold of Paul Sadala, a small-time elephant poacher turned militia leader notorious for terrorizing the people of Ituri. Over at least the last five years, the reserve’s rangers arrested Sadala repeatedly for illegal activities in the forest. Eventually, he decided the problem was the very existence of the reserve. Sadala adopted the moniker “Morgan” and armed himself with a Kalashnikov. Soon he had recruited a ragtag rebel army under a single message: No more Okapi Wildlife Reserve. 

Morgan became the leader of the Simba-affiliated rebels who operated within the reserve. By 2012 he was a permanent fixture at Muchacha, showing up regularly in cell-phone videos smuggled out of the camp by local intelligence. Occasionally he would appear in the villages along the main road of the reserve to terrorize the local population and kidnap unsuspecting women to serve as slaves for his troops.

“He hurt a lot of people,” says Muzama, the youth leader in Epulu. “Morgan is a name that no one wants mentioned around here.” 

Lokumu says the authorities tried everything they could to convince Morgan to lay down his weapons and disband the rebellion. They offered him money, resources, a truce. But Morgan and his troops, he says, refused to relent. In June of 2012 he showed up with about 50 of his most loyal followers at the ranger station at Epulu, naked and armed with Kalashnikovs. They burned the buildings at the ranger station and killed two of the rangers. 

Then the group moved toward the 14 okapis in the pen. One by one, they shot them all dead.

Finding a balance

After the attack, a coalition of nongovernment organizations lobbied the Congolese government to pursue Morgan and his followers, even providing some funding. Last April, the outlaw began negotiating a surrender with the authorities. According to a report from the United Nations Group of Experts in the Congo, on April 12, Morgan arrived at Badengaido from his base at Muchacha, along with about 40 Mai Mai members, to continue the negotiations in person. But two days later, in a murky episode on the outskirts on town, Morgan was shot in the leg during an alleged escape attempt and later died while being transported to a medical facility.

In an unlikely turn of events, an Mbuti man known as Manu has emerged as Morgan’s likely successor. He appears frequently in images smuggled from the Muchacha mining camp, and his identity as a pygmy could lend legitimacy to a movement aiming to reclaim the land that makes up the reserve.

Musa Makubasi, the Mbuti chief, second from left, with other men cutting wind pipes for use in a ceremony.
Elaisha Stokes

The death of Morgan has created a period of relative calm within the reserve and likely allowed for the current military operations to flush out Muchacha. But it’s going to take time. Since the operations began, miners have set up roadblocks along the main road through the park, disrupting one of the busiest trade routes in the country. With the backing of the rebels, the miners have been burning tires on the road outside of Badengaido and demanding their right to dig for gold.

Congolese authorities have started to talk about another capture campaign to bring okapis back to the station so a new generation might appreciate the elusive creature. But no one is sure when or if that might happen.

“We need stability and peace in the reserve, not only for the okapi, but for the people too,” says Lokumu. At the moment, such stability remains a distant hope.

Elaisha Stokes reported from the Democratic Republic of Congo on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.

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