The forest giraffe, or okapi are mysterious creatures so rarely seen they were not discovered until the 20th Century. Since their discovery in the African rainforest they have suffered a turbulent existence with mankind, as their range in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has suffered various political turmoil. Not only are okapi threatened with similar anthropogenic threats to many other species, such as habitat loss through human encroachment and poaching, they also suffer from existing in one of the most dangerous places to protect.
Last year I wrote on Inspire Wildlife about the women who protect mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park; an area rich in biodiversity, minerals and various militia groups including one founded by the ethnic Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 deadly genocide. As you can imagine in a country destroyed by civil war since the early 1990’s protecting the biodiversity somewhere renowned for its minerals is no easy task.
This was deeply highlighted in 2012 when the Okapi Conservation Center in the DRC was attacked by militia. After a two day siege, the militia rebels returned into the depths of the forest leaving behind a scene out of an apocalypse film. Thirteen out of the fourteen okapi at the centre had been killed, along with six people; the fourteenth okapi later died. Amongst those dead were two rangers and a government official. They had also caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage by looting supplies and destroying buildings. All this was retaliation for anti-poaching operations the Center had put in place in conjunction with the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).
Four years later the IUCN, together with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have announced a new strategy to stop the okapi from going extinct in the wild. ZSL’s Dr. Noëlle Kümpel lead author of the strategy has stated that the security concerns have restricted our ability to learn more about this iconic species and that more must be done to prevent this.
After the 2012 attack, the international community helped to rebuild what had been destroyed, however there are now fears that this may be short-lived as local instability levels are rising once again. Safeguarding the existing protected zones, in the Conservation Center and in Virunga National Park will be key to the long-term survival of the okapi but will be difficult as thousands of illegal gold miners have poured into the local area creating more instability. Kümpel and team want to eventually start using a new system which implements SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology, but this can only happen once the issues of security are dealt with in the region.
“This first conservation strategy for the okapi emphasizes the need for us all to intensify our collective and collaborative efforts to protect the unique ‘forest giraffe,’ as well as its habitat, the globally important Congolese forests,” ICCN’s Director General Pasteur, Dr. Cosma Wilungula, said in a statement. “In particular, ICCN needs major international support to restore the integrity of our protected areas,” Wilungula added, “around 350 rangers have died for the cause of conserving the okapi and Congo’s other wildlife in the past 10 years alone.”
You can find out more about okapi conservation and donate to save this species here: The Okapi Conservation Project
Featured Image Credit: The Okapi Conservation Project
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