Poachers wielding AK-47 assault rifles attacked and murdered seven people at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 24. Two of the slain were park rangers. Others were taken hostage and are still unaccounted for.

The murderers also killed 13 okapi (Okapia johnstoni shown above), a relative of the giraffe, burned buildings and destroyed equipment. The attack was led by an elephant poacher known as Morgan. The goal was to disrupt conservation efforts and allow the poachers free access to largest remaining population of forest elephants left in the Congo.

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“We can’t let those poachers kill rangers and hunt wildlife with impunity,” said Guy Debonnet of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in a press release.

A fund has been established to raise $120,000 by July 20 in order to provide for the families of the murder victims and re-establish operations at the Okapi Reserve.

The murders in the Congo are only the latest in a rising tide of violence against environmentalists. The organization Global Witness reported that 106 environmentalists were murdered during 2011, up from 37 in 2004. Between 2001 and 2011, more than 711 environmentalists have been slain during protests or investigations into agribusiness, logging, mining and hydropower initiatives on contested land and forests.

Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and Peru led the list of most deadly nations for environmentalists.

IMAGE: An okapi (Okapia johnstoni) (Raul654, Wikimedia Commons)