The Ituri Landscape harbors the largest remaining population of forest elephants and the endemic okapi in DRC. Its core protected area, the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), once harboured a flourishing elephant population; this now faces extinction by 2020 if poaching continues. In addition, the population of okapi - a national symbol - is in dramatic decline as well. The main threat at work here is poaching, driven by high ivory prices, local bushmeat markets, poor law enforcement, weakly implemented judicial systems, a lack of awareness, and no strong incentives to foster local, regional and national appreciation for the importance of elephants, wildlife, and nature to people's lives.
In June 2012, anti-poaching efforts in Ituri, and particularly the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), largely ground to a halt when the OFR headquarters was destroyed by rebels. Armed poachers attacked the OFR headquarters and research centre, killing 7 people and all 14 captive okapis at the station, taking hostages, destroying and stealing equipment, ransacking and looting homes in the village. Since then, overall insecurity and banditry has returned to the region, and illegal hunting, particularly elephant poaching, has reached unprecedented levels. We now estimate that 30-40 elephants are being killed each month, which represents the highest poaching rate in more than 5 years.
With this current insecurity and increasing poaching, we will lose elephants from OFR, the last stronghold for forest elephants in DRC, before the end of the decade unless we take immediate actions to halt this poaching.
Our project will:
1) Strengthen enforcement and surveillance systems to reduce hunter pressure and the illegal killing of elephants, and to improve our knowledge base on status of threats to and distribution of elephants and okapi;
2) Enhance protection of critical habitats and corridors for elephants and okapi to reduce poaching;
3) Mobilize political will and community support to these flagship species in the Ituri landscape.
We will train and equip wildlife officers to combat poaching, developing data collection (SMART) to facilitate monitoring okapi.
We will conduct regular mixed patrols with park guards and soldiers, rebuild one of the infrastructures destroyed in the attack, build capacity of intelligence networks on poaching and illegal possession of elephant products, and build capacity of judiciary, police and other enforcement agencies to effectively enforce laws on poaching.
We will enhance protection of critical habitats and corridors for elephants and okapi to reduce the incidence of poaching, by identifying opportunities for range expansion and creation of corridors, demarcating the western limits of the OFR.
This project will further enable us to mobilize political will and community support in the Ituri landscape for two of DR Congo's flagship species, raising awareness on the importance of elephants and okapi to build support for measures to conserve and manage populations at the local, provincial and national level, and build a supportive constituency among local communities.
We anticipate the following outcomes for this project:
1. Elephant poaching pressure in Ituri demonstrably reduced with patrols covering at least 75% of the OFR.
2. Judicial systems for prosecuting key figures involved in poaching elephants and trafficking ivory in Ituri are demonstrably strengthened.
3. Threats to okapi from hunting for bushmeat and snares are demonstrably reduced.
4. Number of okapi hunting incidents reduced by 95%.
5. At least 50 rangers/wildlife officers trained and 150 equipped to combat poaching and illegal trade in ivory.
6. Operational SMART database with at least 2 ICCN staff trained in SMART technical/management application and 24 rangers trained in data collection.
7. Increased support for elephant and okapi conservation and management among key stakeholders in the landscape.
8. Park warden living quarters partially rebuilt.
9. Establishment of centralized okapi/elephant database (SMART).
10. Western limits of OFR identified, mapped and demarcated, and endorsed by local authorities and communities.
11. Four corridors connecting elephant and okapi habitat delineated and protected
12. Stakeholders (policymakers, government officials, community representatives, civil society) are aware of - and committed to improving - the poaching crisis in the OFR and across the landscape
13. 75% of the villages in the areas surrounding the OFR are aware of, and supportive of, elephant and okapi conservation