The okapi is a shy forest dweller that only occurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries. Georgina Lockwood shares the work done by the Okapi Conservation Project to protect the African unicorn.
• 45cm: The length of the okapi’s
• Generalist feeder: Okapi feed on the leaves of over 100 plant species.
• 1-2 months: The first time an okapi calf defecates.
• Sexual dimorphism: Females are larger than males.
• Other names: The African unicorn, Congolese giraffe, forest giraffe or zebra giraffe.
We live in a world where the threat of a terrorist attack is widespread, and in the remotest parts of Africa, in the heart of the okapi’s range, things are no different. The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) is under threat from rebel groups and acts of vandalism. Despite this, the team works hard to safeguard these mystical creatures.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is known to be an unstable country and in many ways it lives up to that reputation,” says Lucas Meers, conservation programme officer of the OCP. During a rebel attack in 2012 the OCP lost some of its staff members as well as all 14 habituated okapis based at the centre. The tame okapis served as educational ambassadors as very few people have actually seen one. Despite pressure from the government and the community, the OCP has not replaced the 14 habituated okapis and will only do so when they feel security has been restored.
“Since the 2012 attacks, there have been other breaches in security, including an attack on rangers and journalists in a previously illegally occupied Bapela mine inside the reserve in 2017,” Meers says.
In February 2018, an OCP truck was vandalised, and an okapi educator was killed. “Loosely formed rebel groups collectively known as the Mai-Mai, as well as other armed groups, operate in the area and focus on wreaking havoc by stealing, poaching, raping and other atrocities,” Meers explains.
“The instability can make travelling and instituting wildlife and community programmes difficult,” he adds. “The OCP is doing everything in its power to work with the local community to protect the remaining 3 000–4 000 okapi situated in Okapi Wildlife Reserve.”
Okapis are notoriously secretive – so much so that the first okapi was only discovered by the western world in 1901. They are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. In order to study them, the OCP set up 27 camera traps in the forest. One of the camera traps recorded the first wild okapi calf. Females communicate with their young through infrasonic sound at a level both humans and leopards – their only natural predator – cannot hear.
Approximately 100 okapis are located in zoos around the world and they form part of a larger breeding programme. “The population is growing exponentially and expanding to new zoos every year,” Meers adds. In the late 1980s, the OCP introduced wild genetics to the captive populations to improve the gene pool.
One of the main threats to the okapi is habitat loss through slash-and-burn agriculture. “Our agroforestry programme addresses this by teaching farmers how to improve the soil quality, and by planting nitrogen-fixing trees,” Meers explains. The soils in Ituri Forest are relatively infertile for farming. Another threat is illegal mining for gold and diamonds, which causes further deforestation as mines expand. “We have noticed an increase in illegal mining in the southern part of the reserve due to a lack of effective law enforcement caused by instability in the region,” Meers says. Rebel groups, illegal loggers, ivory poaching and mining all increase the number of people sustaining themselves on bushmeat, which in turn threatens endangered species like the okapi.
The project is based in Epulu, a small town located in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. For 32 years, the OCP has formed strong ties with the community. The Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) patrols the forests regularly, and the OCP is able to keep tabs on rebel activity via word of mouth.
Epulu is relatively safe as it is comparatively isolated from the cities. It has a small-town charm to it. “During the dry season buildings are covered in rusty-coloured dust from the passing trucks,” Meers describes. “There are hand-painted adverts, goats and chickens crossing the road, and women selling colourful materials; trucks and taxis fill the streets. The people of Epulu have an appreciation for the okapi as it is their national animal,” he adds. “And they are starting to understand the importance of protecting the rainforest habitat.”
In December 2018, Felix Tshisekedi replaced Joseph Kabila as president after 17 years in office. “Things are relatively calm after the presidential election and we take things day by day,” says Meers. “People in DRC are welcoming, happy and curious, and they want peace in their country.
“People’s needs must always come first to provide for their families. Once basic needs are met, they can begin to make more sustainable choices.”
The OCP has set up women’s groups, a nursery, health clinic, education facility and an agroforestry programme, and restored water sources. In 2018, the OCP distributed 70 000 tree seedlings for forest restoration projects.
The OCP employs 37 staff who oversee various community initiatives, including agroforestry, community assistance programmes and conservation education. “We also pay the rangers of the ICCN, in addition to providing field equipment, communications equipment and logistics support.”
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Written by: Georgina Lockwood
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