Is it the beginning of the end for Dzanga Sangha?

I just read the most horrible news today – Sudanese elephant poachers apparently linked with the new military coup leaders in CAR (Seleka) have taken advantage of the CAR’s chaos following its military coup and have perpetrated a horrible massacre in Dzanga Bai, CAR. Here, they plan to kill hundreds of elephants (3500 est. in park with 50-200 of the majestic animals visiting the bai every day), and carry out a massacre similar to the devastating calamity that occurred recently in Bouba-Ndjidda NP in Cameroon, resulting in the death of over 300 innocent African Savannah Elephants, including many youngsters. Now already (as of Apr 26, 2013), 40 elephants have been slaughtered and elephant meat is being sold openly in the streets not only in the town of Bayanga, but also in small villages near the reserve.

What is the future for the Forest Elephant? The Congo Basin? Africa’s Parks? Only time will tell. It is saddening to see Loxodonta cyclotis, the most newly described species of elephant, undergoing a catastrophic (>60%) population decline just a handful of years after it was decided that it was a separate species in its own right. Sadly, though far more than just Forest Elephants are at risk in Dzanga Sangha. What’s the future for the Bongos, Red River Hogs, Giant Forest Hogs, Forest Buffalos, and Sitatungas that share the elephants’ home; and what about the Gorillas nearby, and all the other innocent creatures of the reserve; what’s their future…

And what’s the future for all of Africa’s other rainforest parks? Odzala, Lobeke, Korup, Cross River, Nouabale-Ndoki, Salonga, Okapi, Virunga, Lope, Loango…. the list goes on and on

Sadly, there is not much we can currently do against this now. The WWF has signaled a plea for help, summoning militaries of neighboring countries to mount a force against and drive those horrible, good-for-nothing poachers out – best luck to all involved and I hope for it to have the greatest success. Right now, what we can all do to help is simple: SPREAD THE WORD.

I’m sure this is deeply saddening for me and everyone else in the wildlife and nature community, both for people who have already visited this fantastic area, and those who have never have, but dream to. I know all of us, knowing the wonders of this spot, are deeply affected on a personal level. This is all the more depressing for me since I have been planning on visiting here within the next few years, and give a try myself, to see some of its wonders. I don’t know if I can, or ever will be able to, now… Ever since I first read of the rebels throughout CAR (and just of their recent advance to Bangui), I’ve been really worried that this might be the wildlife of the CAR’s true last stand for survival – and perhaps, but hopefully not, the beginning of the end. The CAR has been famed as one of the world’s great wildlife havens and “wildlife wildernesses.” Sadly, this reputation has been increasingly threatened by poaching and at no other time is it more apparent than right now, when Dzanga-Sangha, thought to be one of the world’s safest parks for Forest Elephants and rainforest fauna, is at such a great risk of being completely poached out! Two of the greatest wildlife reserves in Central Africa – the Dzanga-Sangha-Dzanga-Ndoki, and the Chinko Project Area (a vast swathe of uninhabited, unexplored, private hunting concessions-turned nature reserve) have completely uncertain futures. One is being destroyed the Sudanese Elephant Poachers, bandits, the other by cattle rustlers, artisanal gold miners, and the Janjaweed (elephant poachers from Sudan) too.

According to the organization bloody ivory, an affiliate of CITES attempting to crack down on ivory trade: “In the wake of last month’s coup in CAR, reports suggest that law and order have broken down to the point where anti-poaching patrols in Dzangha-Sangha are no longer possible. Indications are that poachers are not only taking advantage of the breakdown in law enforcement to reap their bloody rewards, but are doing so in conjunction with the rebel faction currently controlling the country. Although at this stage a provisional figure of at least 40 forest elephants killed in Dzangha-Sangha over the past month has been reported, the true figure may not emerge for some time.” How horrible!

As a teenager of this generation, I’ve always felt that I was born too late, and that I had missed the glory days – when herds of wild yak covered the Tibetan Plateau, bison colored the Great Plains black, and the great migrations of Africa and Asia. After reading about such places as the Serengeti, Katavi, The Mara, Okavango, Kafue, Chinko-Mbari, Dzanga Sangha, Qinghai, Qinling, Arunachal, Borneo, Odzala, Hemis, Tajikistan, Pantanal, Emas, Torres del Paine, Yellowstone, Wood Buffalo, Denali, Gates of the Arctic, and much more, I was under the illusion, that I just might be born at the right time: when wildlife still occurs in large populations, and the parks they live in are readily accessible. I’m sorry, but how can anyone, anyone, now – while poachers are ravaging Africa and Asia while habitat loss is destroying South America and SE Asia – ever believe that this is the golden age of mammal watching. Like so many others, I do believe that there is no mammal on Earth that is too hard to find – there’s always one secret place, that once exposed, will yield consisted, good sightings. Unfortunately, as catastrophes like this start to become more and more common, I, and many others the wildlife viewing community, are beginning to believe that we might not discover these places before it’s too late. I wish the national parks currently fighting the onslaught of illegal activities to hang in there, and keep fighting. It may seem like all the odds are against them, but some day, some day, out in the future – they WILL return to their renaissance once again. I hope the Chinko Project eventually succeeds as a well-run, well-managed, well-funded, and WELL-PROTECTED wildlife management area and nature reserve for the future and I hope Dzanga Sangha will stay unharmed through this rough patch, and come out in even greater glory than in today.

I hope some control can be exerted by the militaries and government and the poachers can be stopped before they inflict serious damage in this true wildlife wonder. I wish everyone involved in this dramatic, heroic, call to action the best of luck and I hope with all my heart they succeed in this seemingly impossible last-ditch effort.

Until next time,

Venkat

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Conservation Location of the Week – Okapi Conservation Reserve, DRC

First off, sorry I haven’t been posting in a while – I’ve been caught up in a lot of work and have been really busy, but either way, here’s the next post…

The inspiration behind this post came a few weeks ago when I was researching on mammal viewing potential in different parks in rainforest Africa. It begged the question, what are the most significant conservation reserves (in terms of both biodiversity and species populations) in the African tropical rainforests. Well, soon I came up with a shortlist – the Tai/Sapo NP complex in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, the Cross River/Korup Complex in Nigeria and Cameroon, the tri-national rainforest park complex in Congo (Odzala), Gabon (Minkebe), and Cameroon (Lobeke/Dja), the Dzanga-Sangha-Dzanga-Ndoki NP and Nouabale-Ndoki NP in CAR and Congo, and lastly, perhaps the two greatest of them all – the Salonga NP complex and Okapi Conservation Reserve (Ituri Forest) in the DRC.

In this post, I will focus on the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the Ituri Forest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wild northeastern province, Orientale. The Ituri Forest is a very special place; not only is it probably the most diverse forest block in all of Africa for mammals, but it also sustains globally important populations of many of those species. A large percentage of the global populations of many reasonably widespread species, such as the Black-footed Mongoose, African Linsang, White-bellied Duiker, Weyn’s Duiker, Black Fronted Duiker, Bay Duiker, Yellow Backed Duiker, Eastern Chimpanzee, Bates’ Pygmy Antelope, African Golden Cat, Water Chevrotain, Giant Ground Pangolin, Forest Elephant, Bongo, Forest Sitatunga, Giant Forest Hog, and many more occur in the Ituri Forest. Of course, there are also the endemics, and many of these, I believe, are some of the most special animals in Africa.  The Okapi Reserve’s true biodiversity goes far beyond its namesake, that gorgeous, elusive, forest dwelling relative of the giraffe. For example, there is the Owl Faced Guenon (an elusive forest monkey with a lovely facial pattern), the Eastern Needle Clawed Galago (a type of bushbaby), the Central African Red Colobus (a large, red capped, monkey), Alexander’s Cusimanse (a social relative of the mongoose), and Giant Genet (the largest member of the genet family – a beautifully patterned relative of the civet). Perhaps one of the most interesting inhabitants of these forests is the queer Aquatic Genet, in interesting, and strangly ill-adapted creature which seems to enjoy feasting on fish, but has an extreme intolerance for entering the water. Of course, perhaps the forest’s most irreplaceable inhabitant is the Okapi. When European explorers first set foot in these mysterious forests, right in the storied “Dark Heart of Africa,” they met native pygmies, who told of a mysterious forest beast, revered for its beauty and elusiveness. In fact, the animals were so difficult to see that the foreigners thought of them as some sort of forest unicorn! Of course, now we know that to be untrue, for the okapi is a beautiful black-and-white striped member of the giraffe family. Unfortunately, the Okapi also happens to be a very difficult animal to see, not just because of its elusive habits, but also because its habitat is in danger – from internal conflicts, armed gangs, and poaching.

Sadly, the Okapi Conservation Reserve is in peril. Civil War rages in the towns surrounding the forests and many bandits have used the remote wilderness as a hiding place, where they could silently poach animals unnoticed. Just last year in August 2012, 14 Okapi were slaughtered and the whole Okapi Conservation Reserve headquarters in Epulu burned down, when Mai-mai Rebels raided the village. Few have returned since. In fact, the Ituri district has become so dangerous that most countries’ consulates advise against all travel to the region. We can only hope that sometime in the near future, it may become safe once again, and the wildlife may continue to flourish. Meanwhile though, wildlife populations both in and near the reserve have been dealt serious blows. Populations of large animals, such as Bongo, Forest Elephant, Sitatunga, Red River and Giant Forest Hogs, African Golden Cats, Giant Pangolins, Chimpanzees, Okapis (almost 50% decline!) have been crippled, with the most serious damage occurring to the Forest Elephants, due to ivory poaching. Further north in the province in other areas of the Okapi’s range, the news is even more unsettling. The Rubi-Tele Reserve, just north from the Okapi Faunal Reserve, previously thought to be a stronghold for similar species, has been infiltrated by illegal diamond miners, who have begun to poach huge amounts of wildlife from the park as bushmeat. Thankfully, the situation is much less dire in the Okapi Reserve and we can all hope it stays that way, because then perhaps, the wildlife may recover. Hopefully, the region will once again become safe, and tourism will return to this primeval refuge, which, all-in-all, deserves it wholeheartedly. Perhaps, with a little luck, persistence, and help, the Okapi Conservation Reserve could once-again, return to its former glory as “The Serengeti of the Rainforest.”

Advice for Visitors: The Current advice I’ll give right now is DO NOT ATTEMPT A VISIT. At the present (May 2013), very few people will be willing to guide visitors, and travel to the area will involve a large inherent amount of danger. Not even the most seasoned, careful travelers should attempt a trip to this region until the safety concerns can be addressed and the internal conflicts quelled. Hopefully once this occurs, a variety of fabulous tourism options might open up – long treks in the rainforest with guides searching for a variety of rare diurnal and nocturnal species like Genets, Forest Duikers, Mongooses, Linsangs, Monkeys, Elephants, Bongos, Pigs, and perhaps even the Okapis themselves, plus traditional cultural visits to Mbuti and Efe pygmies as well as river journeys by boat, and animal tracking or botanical walks. We can all hope.

All the best,

Venkat