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30 years of protecting the mysterious Okapi

  • The discovery of the elusive okapi, once believed to be a mythical unicorn, was one of the most exciting taxonomic findings of the twentieth century.
  • To protect this shy, giraffe-like animal, wildlife conservationist John Lukas founded the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) in 1987.
  • During the past three decades, the project team has seen both successes and challenges, from political unrest to a brutal rebel attack in 2012 that killed 6 people and 14 okapis.

The discovery of the elusive okapi, once believed to be a mythical unicorn, was one of the most exciting taxonomic findings of the twentieth century.

This mysterious mammal lives deep inside the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and has been known to the western world only since early 1900s. Some scientists called it “donkey-like,” others thought that the animal’s stripes made it more “zebra-like.” The debate was finally put to rest when explorer Harry Johnston, together with a group of the indigenous Mbuti pygmies, acquired the first complete specimen of an okapi (skeleton and skin) from DRC’s Ituri rainforest in 1901. Scientists soon confirmed that the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is in fact the closest living relative of the giraffe.

Found only in the Ituri rainforest of northeastern DRC, the okapi is a fully protected species under Congolese law. Unfortunately, the future of this striking large-bodied mammal is severely threatened by loss of habitat from deforestation and poaching for its skin and bushmeat. The okapi is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Okapis are the only living relatives of giraffes. Photo courtesy of Okapi Conservation Foundation.

To protect this shy, giraffe-like animal, wildlife conservationist John Lukas founded the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) in 1987.

OCP today manages the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a 13,700-square-kilometer (5,290-square-miles) area of wilderness, occupying one-fifth of the Ituri Forest. The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, harboring the largest populations of forest elephants, okapi and chimpanzees in DRC, and is home to the indigenous Mbuti pygmies.

OCP, managed by the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Global, trains and equips wildlife rangers in the reserve and works with the local communities to help improve their lives. It does so by helping develop sustainable incomes from agroforestry and by providing alternative sources of protein to reduce dependence on bushmeat hunting. OCP also works with local authorities to monitor and shut down illegal mines and logging operations.

OCP was awarded Mongabay’s conservation award in 2012 for its instrumental work in protecting okapis.

On June 1, the OCP celebrated its 30th Anniversary. During the past three decades, the project team has seen both successes and challenges, from political unrest to the death of three key staff members in a car accident and a brutal rebel attack in 2012. Mai Mai rebels, led by the notorious poacher known as Morgan, attacked the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 2012, killing six people and 14 captive okapis that were stationed at the headquarters as the species’ ambassadors to the local community.

Mongabay interviewed John Lukas, co-founder of the OCP, to learn more about 30 years of protecting the okapi.

An interview with John Lukas

John Lukas with an okapi at the OCP’s research and breeding station in Epulu DRC. Photo courtesy of Okapi Conservation Project.

Mongabay: What is the status of the okapi in DRC now? How has okapi number changed over the past 30 years?

John Lukas: Okapi have experienced over a 50 percent drop in estimated numbers over the last 25 years which qualified the species to be listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Because it is so difficult to census okapi in the wild we only have loose estimates of 10,000 to 15,000 okapi remaining in DRC down from around 45,000 in 1995. Habitat loss is the biggest threat, mainly caused by agricultural expansion, logging and mining. Poaching pressure varies by location, but snaring is a factor in some areas of okapi range.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve and surrounding intact habitat are home to around 3,500 okapi, and thought to be the largest density in their known range. Securing the Reserve by removing threats is key to saving a viable population of okapi and protecting the forest from exploitation is the best way to provide okapi with the resources they need to thrive.

Mongabay: What have been some of OCP’s biggest wins over the past three decades with respect to conservation of the okapi?

John Lukas: Our biggest win is that we have consistently provided support each day to the dedicated and brave ICCN [Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation] wildlife rangers for the past 30 years so they can be on patrol protecting the wildlife of the Reserve, and that OCP staff have continuously been in the field working with communities across a huge landscape to educate the people about the value of biodiversity and helping them meet their basic needs of food security, health care and education. These acts persevered through a 6-year-long civil war (1997-2003) and continued through the many subsequent years with a lack of government services in eastern DRC.

The second most important accomplishment is the recovery from the devastating attack by Mai Mai rebels in June 2012 that destroyed ICCN headquarters and OCP offices at the Epulu Station. With generous support and encouragement from around the world, we were able to provide food and medical care for rangers and people from Epulu affected by the attack for over 6 months until they could return home and work their gardens. All facilities have been rebuilt and all protection and community programs are operating at full strength.

We have had set backs over the last 5 years, but the resilience of our Congolese staff has managed to overcome many obstacles to maintain an effective presence in the reserve that directly supports the conservation of the largest population of okapi in DRC from exploitation.

The Okapi Conservation Project helps train wildlife rangers. Photo courtesy of Okapi Conservation Foundation.

Mongabay: What have been some of your biggest losses and/or lessons?

John Lukas: The biggest loss we experienced was the death of 3 key staff members in 2003 in a tragic car accident in Uganda while they were returning from negotiating with a rebel group that was in control of Epulu at that time. Karl Ruf and Jean Nlamba co-founded the project with me in 1987 and Kambali Sambili was a rising conservation biologist. To honor their sacrifice, we carried on as best we could and intensified our efforts to save the home of wild okapi. It took time to recover, but we found talented and dedicated people to manage our programs and ensure our presence across the landscape.

The next greatest loss was the killing of the 14 okapi at our education and research station in Epulu during the attack in 2012. Many of the okapi had been in residence for many years and had been ambassadors to the world for the unique beauty and grace of ‘the ghost of the forest’ that represents to the Congolese people all that is special about their natural heritage. Again, we redoubled our efforts to protect the okapi living among the giant trees of the Ituri Forest.

Mongabay: How does OCP work with farmers to protect okapi habitat?

John Lukas: A major threat to okapi is the loss of prime habitat through slash-and-burn agriculture. Through our agroforestry program, we work with farmers to reduce slash-and burn agriculture to protect and enhance the okapi’s rainforest habitat. By educating the farmers on the sustainable use of organic fertilizers, planting nitrogen-fixing trees on their plots of land, and providing them with the essential tools they need to grow their crops, they can utilize the same plot of land for up to ten years, thereby keeping them in the designated agricultural zones and reducing their need for expansion into the rainforest. By using sustainable fertilizers, they increase their crop yields and solidify their food security, reducing their reliance on mining, poaching and the unsustainable use of forest resources to generate income. In addition, our nurseries scattered throughout the reserve head start tree seedlings to engage villagers in reforestation efforts.

OCP’s agroforestry program works with farmers to reduce slash-and burn agriculture to protect and enhance the okapi’s rainforest habitat. Photo courtesy of Okapi Conservation Foundation.

Mongabay: Has the 2012 attack had an impact on how the reserve is now protected?

John Lukas: The attack and subsequent security breaches caused by the armed militias has dictated that we partner with the Congolese army to have the manpower and weapons needed to patrol the Reserve and remove those involved in illegal activities. Fifty new rangers were trained in 2015 and more are scheduled to be recruited this year. Aerial surveys and on-the-ground-sourced intelligence provide information on illegal activities such as mining and poaching that are targeted by joint patrols to remove those involved from the Reserve. Checkpoints on the road through the reserve check for wildlife, mining tools and bushmeat which are all confiscated. As an added measure, the road that passes through the reserve closes at night to prevent the loading of trucks with contraband under the cover of darkness.

Mongabay: What are the biggest threats to the okapi now? How does the presence of illegal armed groups in and around protected areas affect the okapi?

John Lukas: The okapi is a species whose existence is under grave threat from the impact of human activities. The okapi is entirely dependent on the forest refuge for its survival, and deforestation, along with disturbances caused by poaching and mining, has led to its precipitous decline.

Okapi can coexist with small-scale, low-level, transient human occupation of the forest, but disappear in areas of active settlement or disturbance. Encroachment from human settlement, illegal hunting, logging and mining, and the illicit activities of armed groups are serious threats to this important forest ecosystem. These threats coupled with the general economic and civil instability of the DRC after years of continuing interior conflict, burdens the government’s ability to support its protection forces.

The armed groups interfere with and inhibit conservation actions to protect the forest by making the jobs of the rangers much more dangerous and limits where they can patrol. At this time, all armed groups are out of the reserve, patrols are carried out by ICCN rangers in all sectors of the reserve and the military is concentrating on preventing closed gold mines from being reoccupied.

Okapis, or “forest giraffes,” were unknown to the western world until the twentieth century. They are only found in the forests of the DRC. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: The IUCN listing for okapi says that “extensive parts of potential Okapi range are poorly studied.” Do you think the okapi and its habitat still remains poorly studied? If so, why?

John Lukas: Okapi are extremely wary and avoid detection – their senses of hearing and smell are acute, and their feces are easily confused with that of bongo antelope, making it hard to accurately determine true numbers. Okapi occur in the most insecure region of DRC, and surveying for okapi requires walking long transects through the forest. Areas occupied by armed militias, poachers and miners are extremely dangerous and off-limits to most scientists. Additionally, okapi distribution is affected by human activities and surveys may not give accurate information on okapi population trends.

Surveys have occurred in the OWR in 2006, 2011 and another is scheduled for fall of 2017. In the reserve, okapi numbers are holding steady or slightly declining because of extensive efforts to protect habitat and engage communities to value okapi. Across the entire okapi range only anecdotal information is available on the presence or absence of okapi.

There are areas of the historic range of okapi where the trees are standing but due to poaching, very little wildlife survives. We are employing camera traps to document the presence of okapi in disturbed areas of the Reserve and we need to expand this monitoring technique to survey for okapi where camera traps can be safely deployed.

Mongabay: What would happen if the okapi was to become extinct?

John Lukas: If the okapi were to go extinct, it would be a great loss to the people of DRC, the okapi is their symbol of their bountiful biodiversity and wild places, and as a symbol of ICCN, it would be a failure that would be difficult to overcome and a foreboding for the other endangered species that require protection to survive such as gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants. For the world, it would be the loss of a living fossil that has lived on earth for 7 million years and the only living relative of the giraffe.

Not many would notice its passing, but the rainforest of DRC would have lost its flagship species that has rallied the world to care about the largest intact forest and the most biodiverse country in Africa.

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