Okapi show unusual resilience in a war zone

A pioneering genetic study of the endangered Congolese okapi has for the first time unravelled the mystery behind its evolutionary origins and genetic structure. The new information will prove indispensable for future conservation management of the species and, ultimately, its survival.

In the past 20 years the wild okapi’s numbers have halved. Prior to the study, little was known about the enigmatic animal, endemic to the rainforests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. Ongoing threat from armed conflict, habitat fragmentation, human encroachment and poaching has rendered the species endangered, according to a 2013 assessment led by ZSL and IUCN for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Okapi camera trap image ZSL-ICCN Virunga National Park
Okapi camera trap ZSL-ICCN survey Lese Virunga NP DRC

Now, using genetic techniques similar to those employed by crime scene forensics, scientists from Cardiff University and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have been able to piece together a better understanding of the species, bringing new hope for the okapi. Findings were drawn from the analysis of okapi faeces collected from the rainforest, skin samples from museums, clippings of dried skin and artefacts found in villages across its range in DRC.

“Our research showed that okapi are both genetically distinct and diverse – not what you might expect from an endangered animal at low numbers,” said chief investigator of the study, Dr David Stanton from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences.

He added: “Higher genetic diversity means that the okapi are equipped with the necessary genes capable of withstanding changes to their environment. Beyond that they are also more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing their own resilient genetic traits. Consequently, the population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.

“This rich and distinct genetic variation is likely to be a result of periods of forest fragmentation and expansion in the Congo Basin in the ancient past.  The data show that okapi have survived through historic changes in climate, and therefore indicate that the species may be more resilient to future changes.

Okapi at ZSL London Zoo

“There is a concern however, that much of this genetic diversity will be lost in the near future, due to rapidly declining populations in the wild making efforts to conserve the species, facilitated by the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, critical.”

Only known to the Western world since 1901, when the species was discovered by a ZSL Fellow and described at a meeting of the Society, the elusive okapi is nearly impossible to observe in the wild because of its shy nature and the remoteness of the rainforests it inhabits; a trait that has helped it avoid getting caught in the cross-fire of Congo’s long-running civil conflict.

This latest research into the okapi is an important contribution to ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project, run in conjunction with ICCN, the Congolese conservation agency, and numerous other partners.  It provides a unique perspective to better understand the diversity of wildlife in the forests of Central Africa, including information on how these forests are likely to have changed throughout ancient history. The information can also be used to help conserve other animals in the Congo Basin; an area for which very little is known and where funding for conservation work is extremely limited.

Dr Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and ZSL collaborator on the research, said “The IUCN Red List assessment we carried out last year highlighted that the okapi is faring worse than previously thought, with okapi populations shrinking and becoming more fragmented.  It’s therefore critical that we support ICCN to step up conservation efforts across the okapi’s range, and in particular ensure the integrity and security of the protected areas where okapi are found – which includes flagship World Heritage Sites like Virunga National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.”

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the project was conducted by ZSL and Cardiff University under a NERC CASE studentship. Download the full study.

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