Four Congolese park rangers and one porter have been killed in an ambush in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A large group of journalists and park rangers were attacked on Friday 14 July in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve by an armed local rebel group. It is believed that the journalists – one from the US, two Dutch, and one Congolese – were covering a story about the work of the rangers in the forest.
The attack is thought to have been by Mai Mai rebels from the area who have been carrying out illegal poaching and mining activities. They have previously come into conflict with rangers.
Following the attack, three rangers and the US national were reported missing, while the rest of the group, including 11 rangers, escaped to another Okapi reserve base.
The bodies of four Congolese rangers from the state park authority, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), and one porter were found the following day, on the evening of Saturday 15 July. They were killed during an ambush while escorting the journalists back from a visit to the Bapela gold mining site, Unesco confirmed.
“The rescue mission started in the night between Friday to Saturday as soon as we knew that something happened. We don’t know if there were casualties on the attacker’s side,” said Rosmarie Ruf, project manager at Okapi Conservation Project.
The US journalist was found “safe and healthy”, Mambasa territory administrator Alfred Bongwalanga told the Associated Press.
“We are aware of reports that the US citizen reported kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been found safe,” the State Department said in a statement.
“The US Department of State has no higher priority than the protection of US citizens overseas. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
One of the journalists involved in the incident has been identified by the AFP as Lisa Dupuy.
The Dutch foreign ministry confirmed that Dutch nationals were “involved in an incident in Congo and are now safe”.
Ruf said the journalists and rangers would have been vulnerable to attacks in the forest, as they would have travelled by foot. “You have to walk hours and hours through the forest. You can’t see your enemy from far away until he’s there.”
Mai Mai is an umbrella term for local militias who have been active since Congo’s civil war in 1997. They are prolific recruiters of child soldiers and are notorious for committing human rights abuses. Mai Mai Simba describes itself as a “self-defence” rebel group that operates in the Okapi area. The Simba rebels led by an elephant poacher known as Morgan launched a violent attack on the Okapi Widlife Reserve headquarters in 2012, as a response to a crackdown on poaching and mining in the park. The group killed six people and took 28 women hostage.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a Unesco world heritage site, occupies one fifth of the Ituri forest in north-east DRC. It is home to multiple endangered species, including elephants, chimpanzees and okapis. Approximately 5,000 of the last 30,000 okapis live in the reserve.
But the area is also vulnerable to poachers and illegal miners who exploit its rich natural resources. The country has been plagued by unrest following civil wars, and the people who protect its biodiverse land are often in extreme danger. In April, two park rangers were killed by poachers in the Garamba national park. In May, two conservation workers, including a French national, were kidnapped by armed bandits in the Itombwe reserve.
Abductions for ransom are common in DRC, but it is believed that the US journalist hid in the forest after the attack on Friday, and was not kidnapped by the group.
Another Congolese ranger died at the hands of Mai Mai militia in a separate incident on 16 July in Virunga National Park. Dudunyabo Machongani Célestin, aged 30, leaves behind his wife and two young children, aged four and one. Célestin and fellow rangers were ambushed in the Mount Tshiaberimu area of Virunga, where the park’s only population of eastern lowland gorillas live.
Virunga National Park said in a statement that Célestin, who joined the ranger force in 2011, was captured during the ambush and later killed by the militia group.
Sean Willmore, founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation and president of the International Ranger Federation said: “Sadly incidents like this no longer surprise or shock me. I feel for the families and colleagues, I feel for them deeply. But I am not shocked as it happens in absolute regularity to rangers around the world.
“Just as we are leading up to World Ranger Day, to honour those who have fallen in the past 12 months, the total number of rangers killed in the line of duty in the last year now stands at 108. We now have the task of supporting these five families left behind.”