UNESCO alarmed about situation in Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Democratic Republic of CongoParis - UNESCO has expressed great concern at damage to Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and called on the UN Mission in the country to help remove the serious threat to the Reserve, which was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996 and on the List of World Heritage in Danger the following year.
“We are greatly concerned about recent clashes in the Ituri region between the militias of the Congo Liberation Movement (MLC), its ally the Congolese Rally for Democracy -National (RCD-N), and the RCD-Kisangani-Liberation Movement (RCD-K-ML),” the Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, Francesco Bandarin, wrote in a letter to Amos Namanga Ngongi, head of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo MONUC and special representative of the UN Secretary-General in the DRC, dated January 14, 2003.
“According to the information we have these clashes have had a disastrous effects on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve,” he added. “The station at Epulu has been looted by the militias and the disarmed rangers have been forced to flee into the forest, which has led to a worrying increase in poaching, especially of elephants, by the armed groups.”
In view of these new threats, UNESCO asked MONUC to help save as much as possible in the Reserve and assist staff there. Mr Bandarin said UNESCO was “very glad MONUC has been able to facilitate the signing on December 30 last in Gbadolite of an agreement by the three rebel movements to observe the ceasefire.”
“However,” he said, “since the accord provides for MLC forces to move 20 km away from the town of Mambassa, they may end up being stationed in the middle of the Reserve, which would harm conservation of the site. This is why we are requesting your help to ensure that the withdrawal be continued as far as the village of Mungbere in the north and NiaNia in the west. We would also appreciate it if MONUC could help Reserve’s staff movements in the region and help rangers rearm and resume anti-poaching patrols.”
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is one of five sites in the DRC inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, along with the Virunga, Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega and Salonga national parks. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve covers about a fifth of the Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC. It is peopled by nomadic Mbuti pygmies and Efe hunters and is home to many endangered primate and bird species along with 5,000 of the world’s population of 30,000 okapi still living in the wild.
UNESCO is taking local and international action to defend the five sites as part of a 2000 – 2004 project for the “Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict: Protecting World Natural Heritage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” conducted jointly with the UN Foundation. UNESCO and UN Foundation are seeking to rally political support from the government authorities in the DRC and in neighbouring countries involved in the conflict. On the ground, funding is being channelled to pay the park rangers, who have shown their determination to preserve the sites. The Reserve’s staff are also getting training to help them deal with the crisis.
The project has a budget of US$4.3 million. US$2.9 million are provided by the UN Foundation, $250,000 by the Belgian government, with the remaining US$1.15 million pledged by the European Union. Most of the money is being used to pay the 1,100 rangers who patrol the five World Heritage sites daily.