"It is up to you the youth of Mambasa. The future of the elephants is in your hands!” Throwing down his challenge to the next generation, the Administrator of the Mambasa Territory in the Ituri Forest of Democratic Republic of Congo was marking the area’s first ever World Elephant Day (2015).
It was the inauguration of a month-long outreach campaign. Involving local language radio debates, song contests for schoolchildren and inter-community football matches for young adults, activities had rallied pride in local flora and fauna including forest elephants and okapi – long threatened by encroachment from illegal mining as well as targeted poaching. And with his public address, the Administrator had stoked the fire in those young hearts and minds.
That hope, however, vanished in a cloud of gun smoke following a spate of attacks by local rebel militia in the region in December. Since then SOS funded conservation activities in the Ituri Forest, and the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR) within, have been suspended due to the continuing high level of risk posed by instability in the area. Having supported grantee and IUCN Member, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) work in the region since 2014, SOS awaits news of developments and hopes this is a temporary, if grave, interruption in much needed conservation work in this biodiversity hotspot and World Heritage site.
There had been steady progress in anti-poaching efforts since 2012. That was when the infamous Mai Mai militia attacked and destroyed the headquarters of the OFR, killing several people and the entire captive population of okapi. During the following peaceful period, training in and implementation of SMART conservation software had helped improve efficiency and efficacy of anti-poaching patrols in the forest – closing mining operations, confiscating equipment and arresting poachers.
The outreach and education efforts of the 2015 campaign represented an innovative way to build the local support base valuable to sustaining the momentum. The project team targeted towns in Mambasa territory where community radio stations were located but also for another reason: “These are places where poachers are recruited, where notorious poachers like Morgan (Paul Sadala) and Masimango had lived. Furthermore poachers are supplied in arms, ammunitions, food and porters from these towns,” according to Robert Mwinyihali, the Project Leader with WCS' work in the Ituri Forest.
Results indicated that by end of September the campaign had sensitized tens of thousands of citizens through radio broadcasts as well as banners and public announcements at football matches. In fact more than 8,000 spectators attended the football games alone.
Poaching for ivory has resulted in a drastic decline in elephant populations of the OFR. Cumulatively, the OFR has lost more than 75% of its elephant population in less than 20 years according to WCS. The success of the World Elephant Day celebrations marked a turning point in the war on extinction, not just for elephants, but for the Ituri Forest’s okapi, primates and other large fauna.
A future of coexistence really did seem that bit closer to hand.
With this in mind, SOS approved a six-month no-cost extension to the project team. Commenting on events from WCS headquarters, Elizabeth Bennett noted, "this (suspension of activities) is extremely unfortunate, given the importance of ensuring protection of the wildlife, but it is just not safe to be in the area at present. As soon as our staff can re-enter the area, they will do so”, and their work to help protect Ituri Forest’s natural treasures can resume in earnest while SOS will report on any progress.
This is just one of many anti-poaching projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative. With your continued support we can continue to support frontline conservation tackling issues like illegal wildlife trade. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.