Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Okapi, a Forest Giraffe Only Exists in the Ituri Forest | DR Congo, Africa

Okapi, a Forest Giraffe Only Exists in the Ituri Forest | DR Congo, Africa

This is an Okapi, a forest giraffe – it only exists in the Ituri. Since all the food is low it no longer needs the long neck of a savannah giraffe.

The Reserve de Faune à Okapisis the largest rainforest reserves in all of Central Africa. The reserve is located in the Ituri Forest of northeastern Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, it creates the practical and ethical quandaries posed by doing conservation work among people who have so little and depend on the forest for so much.

The Ituri Forest, approximately 70,000 square km, has no clear boundaries, but refers to the area roughly outlined by the watershed of the Ituri River, one of the Congo’s many tributaries.  As part of the largest forest refuges remaining from the Pleistocene epoch, it is particularly noted for its high species endemism and diversity.

The Ituri holds over 13 different species of primates as well as an array of large terrestrial mammals including the forest elephant, forest buffalo, giant forest hog, and the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a rainforest giraffe endemic to Congo and most abundant in the central Ituri.

The Ituri is also the home of a rich cultural array of forest dwelling peoples.  Various groups of foraging peoples, collectively known as the Mbuti, are very likely to have been the first people to live in the Ituri.  But for much longer than was once thought, they have been living in complex interdependent relationship with various Bantu and Nilotic farming peoples.  The relationship is based on a rich configuration of economic, political, social, and religious exchanges that goes beyond the purely material.  Besides exchanging meat and other forest products for cultivated starches grown in farmers’ gardens, the Mbuti may often play important and necessary roles in various ceremonies the farmers hold.

From my journal:

As we go south there are all these soldiers going through the Ituri with bicycles that each have two huge artillery shells on the back rack. Paluku learns that they are taking the toleca drivers bicycles and using them to ferry munitions to the front.

Even more disheartening is that the second village into the reserve has six soldiers that are only there to hunt forest elephant for ivory.  We have to stop at the local chief to “congratulate him (bribe him)” and Paluku learns that he has been putting up the soldiers and his pygmies have been helping them hunt for forest elephant… the soldiers avoid me… they know they are doing illegal stuff… but the warlords rule, I don’t think this forest will survive.

When we get back, the Conservateur of the Ituri is there to greet me.  I’ve been avoiding this scumbag-he is the highest government official in the reserve.  I truly believe he would allow people to do anything they want in the reserve as long as he got paid.  He greets me with his Simon Legree look, rubbing his hands together.  I ask him why he is allowing six soldiers to hunt elephant in the reserve.  I ask him why he is not doing his job.  He gives some answer about how WCS (American NGO) has to mobilize people from Kinshasa to stop this even though it is clearly his job to do so… this government can’t protect it’s own resources.

I’m disgusted with this guy and I say “thank you very much… I will let you and Paluku talk.”  As I shake his hand he screams “Ma Cadeaux, Ma Cadeaux…” Screaming for a bribe as I walk in disgust out of his camp… Unbelievable…

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