The manhunt has resumed for the leader of a DRC militia that attacked a wildlife reserve in June. Six people were killed and 14 endangered forest giraffes, known as Okapi were slaughtered. He had been in the custody of a rival militia, but somehow escaped.
Paul Sadala is the leader of the Mai Mai / Simba rebels in northeastern Ituri Province. He goes by the alias Morgan. He had long been wanted for elephant poaching and illegal mining within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Now he’s wanted for an early morning attack on June 24th at the Okapi Conservation Project in Epulu.
Rebels first attacked and burned the headquarters of the Institute in the Congo for the Conservation of Nature or ICCN. They then attacked the conservation project about a hundred yards away, killing the guards and the Okapi, then ransacking and looting buildings of equipment, food and fuel. Many Epulu residents fled the town. It’s believed the attack was in retaliation for efforts to stop Morgan’s illegal activities.
Soldiers from the Congolese army, the FARDC, and ICCN guards launched a manhunt for Morgan and his men. But John Lukas, director of the Okapi Conservation Project, said it was an unexpected event that led to his initial capture.
“One of his wives stole some money from him and left their encampment wherever it was in the forest south of the reserve. And she went quite a ways. He took 18 of his men and went after her, but he unfortunately crossed into the territory of another Mai Mai group and they are not friendly. So they actually engaged in a firefight with Morgan and captured him and the 18 men,” he said.
Lukas says authorities confirmed his capture and began measures to take him into custody.
“The ICCN was negotiating the release. They were asking a ransom, which was being put together to get Morgan and hopefully transfer him to Kinshasa. But he escaped the night of August 5th and I have concerns about the word ‘escape.’ But he is not at the encampment anymore. They still have the 18 rebels. So we feel that his group is quite weakened and right now, the FARDC and the ICCN guards are resuming the search for him,” he said.
Lukas said Morgan’s reported escape may have had something to do with the ongoing violence in eastern DRC. Civilians are routinely killed, raped and displaced by various militias.
“This happened in North Kivu, so they had traveled quit a way. And there was kind of a dispute about the people in North Kivu getting dragged into this conflict with this notorious poacher. So I think that had a lot to play on it. They didn’t want to bring repercussions to bear on them. So that could have been the influence about his so-called escape – more like a release,” he said.
While the manhunt for Morgan continues, security has been bolstered at the reserve and conservation project. However, no Okapis will be brought there for the time being.
“Right now, we’re focusing still on taking care of the displaced people. We’re feeding about 1500 family members every two weeks. We are slowly cleaning up the station. We have a contingent of people that are in Epulu that want to be there. There’s no requirement they return to Epulu - only if they want to – because their homes are there or their gardens are there. That’s why they went back. And the soldiers are there so it’s really secure,” said Lukas.
It’s believed there are somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Okapi in the DRC’s rainforest. But they’re very elusive, so their exact number is not known. There are about 4,000 of the animals within the reserve itself. They look like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra and weigh up to 800 pounds.