Can Congo save itself, and the myth is ok?


Striped okapi is often described as a half zebra, half a giraffe, as if it were a hybrid creature from Greek legend. So rare is okapi, which was unknown to the western world until the turn of the 20th century.

While okapi is almost unheard of in the West, its image permeates life in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the only country in the world where it is found living in the wild – cigarette packs, plastic water bottles, and even back from the wrinkled Congo Francs. Okapi is for Congo like a giant panda for China or kangaroos to Australia.

Today, only 10,000 are left.

Three decades ago, an American scientist made it his life's mission to protect this rare mammal by participating in managing the Okapi Nature Reserve in eastern Congo. This reserve is about the size of Yellowstone National Park, in the United States, but that's where the similarities end.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit.

Armed militias stalking dirt roads, gold mines and illegal diamonds operate with close impunity and ivory hunters are rife. To complicate matters, the region is struggling with the worst Ebola outbreak in the country to date.

This week, when the country accepted opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi as the winner of a disputed landmark election, the country stood on a cliff.

Okapi's fate, once again, driving the next country step.

Welcome to Zaire

When 37-year-old John Lukas landed in the capital city of Kinshasa with a rickety cargo plane in the late 1980s, Congo was a very different place from what he had navigated today.

A large country that runs in these two time zones does not have a single road that connects east to west. But under military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant leader is famous for his leopard hat, his life is relatively stable, Lukas said. After independence from Belgium in 1960, hope was on the air.

"Under Mobutu, anyone in Congo can go anywhere safely," he said. "You never feel threatened."

Mobutu Sese Seko wore his typical headgear.

Florida-based zoology graduate, Luke has led the Big Game safari in east and south Africa for years, but there is one strange animal he has seen in an American zoo and wants to be admired in the wild.

About the size of a horse, okapi is a close relative of the thin, long-necked yellow giraffe we ​​know today. "This is extraordinary biology," Lukas said. The okapi can lick the back of its own neck with an 18-inch tongue, and the shiny coat feels like velvet. Most newborns of any species defecate within 12 hours after birth, Luke said, but okapis hold their first stool for 60 days, to avoid the smell of leopards to hunt. Okapi can move each ear independently.

Luke is attracted.

In 1987, he arrived in Epulu – a seven-day road trip from Goma, a city in the east – with a group of talented conservationists. In the 1980s, Congo had an active Ministry of Environment that was serious about protecting the country's natural gifts, and Lukas's group worked with ministers to promote the country's national animals. In 1992, The Okapi Reserve is officially recognized by the government.

Under Mobutu, this part of the Ituri Rainforest has been designated as a mineral reserve, to protect future mining opportunities. As a result, it is almost free of development, providing an ideal habitat for closed okapi.

The Mbuti Pygmy Village has lived in the Ituri rainforest for thousands of years. Reserve Okapi supports their nomadic lifestyle, providing health care and financial assistance.

"Our mission from the government is to … make Epulu known for okapi. So that people see the animal," Lukas said.

Felly Mwamba, a merchant born and raised in Kinshasa, explained that while everyone in Congo knew what okapi was, most people had never seen it in real life. "Years ago, I saw one at the Kinshasa Zoo," said Mwamba. "But they're gone."

Joining Luke is Congolese conservationist Jean N & Lamba, Swiss zoologist Karl Ruf and his wife, former office worker Rosmarie Ruf, who followed her husband to Africa, as well as officials from the Congo Wildlife Authority (ICCN).
It's not a life-threatening mission. Okapi is not an endangered animal.

It all came later.

African donkey, I guess

The West breathed okapi for the first time in 1890 when Welsh journalist Henry Morton Stanley was confused about the strange "African donkey" in his book. After greeting Victorian missionary David Livingstone who was lost with the words "Dr. Livingstone, I think," in Tanganyika in 1871, the author was well known.

But Stanley's true legacy is the role he played in European colonization in Africa.

After the British government refused to fund its exploration in Congo, Stanley was approached by King Leopold II of Belgium, who wanted to exploit African wealth. Using forced labor, Stanley oversaw the construction of a tiring road, entirely by hand, crossing the Congo and helping Leopold claim the territory as private territory.

Congo is 76 times the size of Belgium, and Leopold became rich from ivory and large rubber reserves without ever stepping on foot there.

Only a small amount of investment was made in Congo or its people, and by the time the Belgian government took control of Leopold in 1908, millions of Congolese people had died or been mutilated: One savage act saw local residents who failed to fulfill their rubber quota punished by their hands cut.

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Okapi skin; The Welsh author's book, Henry Morton Stanley; and writer.

In the early 20th century, roads built by greedy occupation now moved droplets of Western adventurous visitors throughout the region. One such tropical tourist has Harvard education Patrick Putman, who in 1933 descended on eastern Congo and opened a small hotel and roadside zoo in Epulu, where he lived with a number of American and African wives. That was the first time the okapis were tamed in Epulu.

The okapi tongue can be as long as 18 inches.

Okapi with a ranger in reserve.

"They are new to Westerners," Lukas said.

Previously, it was believed Opaki was a new species of zebra. Only later, when the okapi skeleton was analyzed, did naturalists realize that they had a giraffe in their hands.
Putman died in 1953 and seven years later Congo gained independence, triggering a civil war that invaded the area. All 26 okapis on the base walked back to Ituri rainforest.

Remote paradise

In the early 1990s, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was a small paradise. Thin sunlight is filtered through a canopy that shines light on the forest floor. Tree anteaters climb giant trunks, forest elephants running safely, tropical birds chirping in the wind.

"Once you enter, there is no communication with the outside world," Lukas said. "You will write home and hopefully someone will reply to the letter." Everything in the camp, from wire fences to microscopes, must be flown to Epulu, a village located inside the rainforest but right outside the reserve.

Above: John Luke is in reserve in the early years. Below: With okapi, when they are still stored at Epulu station.
In the first half of the 20th century, Belgium had animals flown from Epulu to the Antwerp Zoo, where in 1957 the first okapi was born in captivity, allowing other foreign zoos to take stock. In the 1990s, the gene collection of global zoo populations was slim and failed. Now Lukas's group digs a hole along the okapi line to catch animals to breed on the base, and three babies are born: One woman and two men. "We send the calves all over the world," Lukas said. "They have many offspring." About 200 okapis at zoos in New York, Chicago, Dublin, and Tokyo are currently mostly from the trio.

Wild okapi caught on forest cameras in Congo.

Luke divides his time between Congo and Florida, where he dredges dollars to reserve and conduct groundbreaking scientific research. Using sound amplifier technology provided by NASA, his team collected data that helped prove okapis to communicate through infrasonic sounds that were invisible to humans. "Like dinosaurs," Lukas said.

But along with the development of teamwork, Congo became a shadow of the country.

After rising to power, Mobutu changed the name Zaire Congo, wore a leopard robe and dried the state treasury, buying his enemies to maintain stability. The sleepy hometown of Gbadolite in the north, transformed into a luxury city, nicknamed "Versailles of the Jungle." Filled with Western-style malls, supermarkets and five-star hotels, the hotel also features three luxurious palaces with Louis XIV furnishings, Italian marble and luminous fountains. In 1985, Gaston Lenôtre, then the world's leading cake chef, was flown to Gbadolite on a Concorde with a birthday cake for Mobutu.
A soldier steps across a fountain that grows in front of one of the palaces of the late Mobutu Sesse Seko on September 15, 2000 in Gbadolite, Congo. The three elaborate palaces in Gbadolite have long been looted.

The country, once again, was robbed.

In 1997, when Mobutu received cancer treatment in Europe, Laurent Kabila marched to Kinshasa and took over the country. The coup divided the territory.

Kabila has used Rwandan-backed troops to win power, provided that Hutu rebels, who have carried out the Rwandan genocide and are now hiding in Congo, will return home to face justice after he took power. Kabila denied that promise, and triggered a bloody conflict which was then called the First World War of Africa.

Rwanda and Uganda sent anti-Kabila troops to Congo, while Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe supported the government. Millions of lives were lost, mostly due to illness and hunger, and infrastructure in the east of the country was destroyed.

Laurent Kabila (left) and his son Joseph Kabila (right).

Kabila was shot dead by bodyguards halfway through the war, and his son Joseph Kabila took power.

"Joseph Kabila's bad government was inherited from Mobutu, he is sophisticated and adapts to a more global world," said Kris Berwouts, an author of several books on Central Africa based in Kinshasa, Belgium. From 1999 to 2002 alone, the Kabila regime transferred ownership of at least $ 5 billion in assets from the state mining sector to private companies under its control, according to the United Nations.

When the war ended in 2003, at the local level the country evaporated, said Berwouts. Hospitals are places where people go to die, the state does not provide education. "The state is totally gone," he said. "Who left the field for armed actors."

Weapons, gold and sand

During the warring years, Luke became a kind of diplomat. "There are several rebel groups, as well as Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers, and the Congolese government, fighting back and forth over areas in eastern Congo," Lukas said. "We will negotiate with anyone who is in control of a safe path for our workers."

In 2003, Karl Ruf, N amba lamba and Kambale Saambile, rising stars on the okapi project, just reached an agreement like that with the famous war lord Jean-Pierre Bemba. On the way home from a successful meeting, a bus out of control collided with their car on a mountain.

Rosmarie and Karl Ruf feed okapi.

"In one hit, we lost our top three people," Lukas said. Karl's wife, Rosmarie, is in Switzerland. "It's a disaster," he said. Rosmarie decided to take over her husband's inheritance and manage the reserves. "I know I can't stop doing it," he said. "My husband won't be happy if I leave Congo and give up."

More problems ahead.

When state institutions collapsed, the Congolese population had increased rapidly. It is estimated that there are 80 million people in this country, but the last census was in 1986. Today, the number is definitely higher. Ruf said people were increasingly starting to move into reserves, both to practice slash-and-burn farming, hunting or mining, putting okapis under threat.

The government mobilized guards to protect the area, and Luke increased their salaries by $ 43 per month with bonuses for each snares are collected or patrols are complete.

Jean Paul Monga, 40, has been a ranger in the reserve since 2001. Ten years ago, he said, guards might have found a small group of four or five hunters. "Today, you will find a gang of 30 or 40 people hunting inside the reserve," he said. "They are determined. They want to get ivory and, if you find them, they will open fire."

Mining at the Okapi Reserve, as seen from the air survey.

Emas (left) pours from an illegal mine in Ituri.

However, closing mines and poachers is a difficult problem in poor countries where employment opportunities actually do not exist.

Neighbor Rwanda, which is now regarded as Africa's stability flare, has turned its mountain gorilla population into a profitable tourism dollar. Travel with mountain gorillas in Rwanda costs $ 1,500, and tourism accounts for 13% of the country's GDP, giving Rwanda incentives to support conservation. Congo also has a mountain gorilla at Virunga Park, just south of the Okapi Reserve, but after two British tourists were kidnapped there last year, the area is considered too dangerous for a viable tourism industry. "We got one or two tourists who came," Lukas said. "I don't know whether they are brave or stupid."
A rumbling Afarama Waterfall inside the Okapi Reserve.

In 2012, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve suffered its worst attack, when armed rebels stormed Epulu station. All 14 domestic okapi at the base died, buildings were burned and 100 people were kidnapped, men were made porters, women were made wives.

The rebels thought the reserves were up, Rosmarie said, but her team remained.

The ICCN headquarters in Epulu were looted and burned after the 2012 attack.

"Beautiful places are now filled with armed groups who live outside the control of the state and only have it to feed themselves," Berwouts said.

Okapis have not been stored at Epulu station since.

Democracy is delayed

On December 30, 2018, Congo went to the polling station. The national constitution sets two presidential limits, and after two years, Kabila has finally stepped out of the way of democracy. It was set to become the first transfer of peaceful democratic power in the country.

Luke and Ruf are waiting for dramas from Florida and Switzerland, respectively. That was an important moment for Congo. And that is wrong.

Health workers in the new Ebola MSF (Doctors Without Borders) treatment center in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Election observers 40,000 influential Catholic churches in the country found that Martin Faylul won. But opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared a winner amid widespread irregularities and allegations of fraud.

"Kabila is very smart and she knows how to work the system," Lukas said. "He wants to run again in 2023, and he wants to control the party."

On January 19, the Constitutional Court ratified the results of the election, despite a request from the African Union to delay taking a new presidential oath when they conducted an investigation. In Epulu, the internet has been turned off for weeks – a government move to stem the riots – and Ebola remains around 200 kilometers from reserves, which have now killed more than 400 people.

Luke is determined to hold the line, waiting for the revival of the fate of the Congo which has proven to be as difficult as okapi.

Bongo antelope.

He plans to expand his project to Maiko National Park in the south, where rebels win over conservation. "It's a spectacular place with bongo antelope, okapis and gorillas," he said. "Nobody can go there, it needs our help. I don't have much time left, so I will spend every moment making a difference."

Meanwhile, a record of 50 cents that the okapis decorate gracefully is now of little value in the currency system devalued by the Congo so it is not circulating.


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