Because the world's most imperiled species are sometimes found in the world's most dangerous places, the combustible mix of focused altruism and local desperation can collide and result in horrific tragedy.
Such a scenario occurred this past weekend in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) -- the setting for Joseph Conrad's epic novel "The Heart of Darkness." In this wild jungle, the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature and headquarters for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve -- a center devoted to conserving the rare okapi and helping improve the lives of local people -- was over-taken forcefully by a gang of poachers, intent on retaliating against the staff of the center who had been thwarting their elephant poaching operations in the region.
Reports are still coming back, but it has been confirmed that the armed rebels brutally murdered two guards, the wife of one of the guards, and three civilians. They also looted and burned the local village of Epulu, raped the women, and burned down the conservation center which had been functioning as an education center and resource for local people for a quarter century. In addition to helping preserve the rare wildlife of the forests, the Institute had offered local people programs for sustainable food sources, agriculture and fuel, secured access to safe water, provided education opportunities and school supplies, and surveyed the area for illegal mining, poaching and logging activities that rob local people of their community resources.
It is believed that most of the nearly one-hundred local staff and the handful of foreign scientists working at the station escaped into the jungle where they hid for 48 hours, or walked 80 kilometers to the nearest city. But the six slain victims of the rebels were not so fortunate.
Adding another layer to the tragedy, the station was also home to 14 okapi which were kept as ambassadors for the species and used for education, biological observation and breeding. Some of these animals had lived peacefully at the center for two decades, and one had just given birth to a calf only five months ago. In the multiple times the center had been over-taken by various militant forces in the past, never once had one of the ambassador okapis been harmed. This time the elephant poachers ruthlessly slaughtered all the animals at the conservation center. Thirteen of the okapi are dead and one is severely wounded and barely alive.
Okapis are mysterious and rare dwellers of the forest only found in the DRC. They are a unique species, the only living relative of the giraffe, with a deep purple velvet-like coat, an equine build, and the striped hind-quarters of a zebra. They were one of the last large mammals to have been identified and documented because of their elusive nature and ability to blend seamlessly into their jungle environment. There are only believed to be less than 20,000 individual okapis left in the wild. The loss of these magnificent individuals and the destruction of the center devoted to preserving their existence is a monumental loss, both from an animal welfare and wildlife conservation perspective.
As someone fascinated by okapi, I have been following the work of the Okapi Conservation Project and the successes of its impressive founder John Lukas since it was first established in 1987. John is a great colleague, friend and wildlife hero. I am grateful that neither John nor the center's Project Director Rosie Ruf was in the DRC when the attack happened, and I was heartened to learn that most of the staff and visiting conservationists seemed to have escaped. But the deaths of the six victims and the slaying of the innocent and beautiful okapi are beyond the pale and demonstrate the unthinkable cruelty of which humans are capable.
The rampant poaching of wildlife in Africa must be stopped. It is an on-going and escalating crisis for the animals and the people who risk everything to protect them.
We are grieving for the families of the victims, for the survivors who experienced such an atrocity, for John and his colleagues who devoted their lives to establishing and running this station which benefited the animals and people of the region, and for the lost okapis -- wonderous creatures who, like the people of the center and outlying area, did not deserve what happened to them.
Our hearts are in darkness now as we mourn this tragic loss.