Tragic losses in the heart of darkness

Okapis are mysterious and rare dwellers of the forest only found in the DRC.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.

-- JF

Comments: 7

 
Anonymous
2 years ago

Dreadful so so sorry. Appaling. I hope the murderers are found and are put to death slowly and painfully but I know this will not happen the world is not a fair place.

 
CARINA A T
2 years ago

Who is buying the ivory? Not the West right? Nobody out here wants ivory stuff. Asia is probably buying the ivory like they are buying the shark fins. Enough already!

Here is what I did(as a short fiction artist) with Joseph Conrads other famous story, "The Secret Sharer". Unlike the African looters who destroyed this conservation work, some of Conrad's evil characters had at least half a conscience.

THE SECRET SWIMMER
A captain on anchor watch at two am is a rare sight. A captain on anchor watch at two am and a man swimming in the black water below the deck rail was so strange, both men were, at that moment, unable to escape their own uniqueness. No crowd or fantasy offered them any escape. The captain did, at first, think that he was dreaming. “Help me,” the man called up from the black water in which a sliver of the moon floated.
“What are you man?” asked the captain.
“Escaped from The Harvest,” said the swimmer.
“Escaped?” asked the captain as his thoughts narrowed. He was the captain of a marine conservation vessel who had earlier pursued The Harvest into the bay. The Harvest was a vessel the captain and his crew suspected of being illegal in action and illegal in design. The captain was committed to the science of his ship's mission to document and prevent the destruction of world wide populations of cetaceans . He had spent years trying to save whales from extinction, abuse, and profiteering. The captain could feel himself lower the ladder into the black water, but he couldn't exactly feel why he did it. His heart softened as he felt the mans weight on the ladder. Saving man was part of his mission also wasn't it? The captain felt that a man must be saved in his worst behavior, not lost in it.
“Thanks,” said the swimmer then dripping on the deck. “ I should see your captain.”
“I am the captain,” said the captain.
“And you didn't wake your men?” asked the swimmer.
The captain didn't answer. He raised his eyebrows over the empty deck. He had not woke anyone with a call of 'man overboard' but in fact some crewmen were in the shadows listening. The naked and cold swimmer began to shake and shiver. The captain, who carried no weapon, removed his jacket and gave it to the swimmer who used it to cover himself. “You talk to me,” said the captain.
“I have a story,” said the swimmer.
“I'll hear it inside,” said the captain. “You can warm up.”
“Are your men as kind as you?” asked the swimmer.
“Maybe,” said the captain. “Probably.”
In the captains quarters, the swimmer dried and dressed with what the captain gave him. “I've killed whales,” he said.
“It is illegal to kill whales in these waters by international law,” said the captain.
“I can't go back. Please don't make me go back,” said the swimmer.
“Is there a dead whale on The Harvest ?” asked the captain.
“Yes,” said the swimmer. “Just a baby.”
“Why?” asked the captain.
“Why not kill whales?” asked the swimmer. “They are going to die anyways. “
“What?” asked the captain.
“I don't enjoy killing whales really. It is not so fun,” said the swimmer.
“Why did you swim?” asked the captain.
“Because I killed a man,” said the swimmer.
“A man?” asked the captain.
“On The Harvest. It was a stupid fight! A mistake!” said the swimmer. “Can I hide here? Can you take me where you are going? I can't go back. Maybe they will hang me! Do you understand? I shouldn't have killed the man!”
“I understand,” said the captain. He locked the swimmer in a safe place. Then he and the first mate called authorities about both the dead.

copyright 2012 Carina Tootle

 
Tory Braden
2 years ago

We must face up to what is really going on in Central Africa. These locals want their money for ivory, and the zealot islamists/Al Shebab want ivory for guns. This is all about installing sharia and the caliphate world wide. This is no time to be PC about saying what's what. The only thing that matters to these myopic militants, same species as the Nazis and Hitler, is getting what they want (the caliphate, country by country, ie Somalia) no matter how. The lives of elephants, okapi and human infidels certainly do not matter. The anger with which this massacre took place lets us know the religious evil being dealt with. Are they more determined than we? Only exposing the truth as warning, will let the side of right prevail - that and hiring ex Navy seals and other advanced mercenaries (maybe your Washington contacts can find us these).

 
Anonymous
2 years ago

We must face up to what is really going on in Central Africa. These locals want their money for ivory, and the zealot islamists/Al Shebab want ivory for guns. This is all about installing sharia and the caliphate world wide. This is no time to be PC about saying what's what. The only thing that matters to these myopic militants, same species as the Nazis and Hitler, is getting what they want (the caliphate, country by country, ie Somalia) no matter how. The lives of elephants, okapi and human infidels certainly do not matter. The anger with which this massacre took place lets us know the religious evil being dealt with. Are they more determined than we? Only exposing the truth as warning, will let the side of right prevail - that and hiring ex Navy seals and other advanced mercenaries.

 
Anonymous
2 years ago

Senseless killing of people and endangered wildlife shows how difficult is to protect both of them from the tortures of man.

 
Anonymous
2 years ago

This is a sad story. May our Lord God grant peace to those involved and their families and to those lost in this travesty. I hope that the sanctuary can be rebuilt and better protected through increased security measures in the future. If possible, I hope that those individuals responsible can be captured and made to pay for this travesty. God bless all those involved.

George H. Campbell
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA
geocampbell@sbcglobal.net

 
Anonymous
2 years ago

So very sad,heart braking.So Unforgivable!!

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