Okapi conservation

Okapi

Because of its shy nature and the challenges of fieldwork in Democratic Republic of Congo, obtaining accurate and up to date information on the Near Threatened okapi has been a major conservation challenge. From 2001-2013, ZSL led a collaborative effort to carry out the first range-wide conservation status review of this little-known but iconic species. This research laid the foundations for an okapi conservation strategy development workshop which will determine the conservation measures to be taken to protect this species in the future.

Why we were there

Virunga National Park is the oldest and most bio-diverse national park in Africa. It was the first African protected area listed as a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site, but as a result of civil conflict was re-listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1994. From 2001-13 ZSL worked to rebuild the capacity of the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, to restore the long-term integrity of the park. Sadly, as a result of political unrest and tragic attacks on staff and okapi, ZSL has been forced to suspend operations in Equatorial Guinea.

Okapi in Virunga

In 2008 ZSL and the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, surveyed the Watalinga forest and reconfirmed the presence of okapi in the park, not officially recorded since 1959. In doing so, the team captured the first ever camera trap images of a wild okapi. ZSL rapidly investigated the threats faced by the Watalinga okapi population and concluded that its extinction was likely unless immediate conservation action was taken. A road cutting through the park had allowed increased pressure from deforestation and hunting for meat and skins.

Leading Range-wide Okapi Conservation

In 2010 ZSL launched a major collaborative project to assess the status of okapi across its range. Collating historic and current okapi survey data and carrying out genetic analyses allowed us to understand the distribution, abundance and threats to okapi across its range. This facilitated the development of new tools to monitor okapi and an okapi conservation strategy. We also trained staff from ICCN and partner organisations to build capacity for future okapi management. An Okapi workshop was held in May 2013 in DRC with multiple stakeholders to develop this strategy.

IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist group.

In March 2013 the IUCN SSC (Species Survival Commission) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (GOSG) was formally established. It is hoped that the group will help to attract and strengthen international support and provide an official forum to support strategies to conserve these species. The two co‐chairs for the group are Dr Julian Fennessy from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Dr Noëlle Kümpel from ZSL. 

Project information

Key Species

The okapi, a close relative of the giraffe, is endemic to the tropical forests of central and north-eastern Democratic of Congo (DRC). It is listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List. ZSL's relationship with the okapi dates back to its official discovery in 1901 by a ZSL member.

People involved

  • Dr Noëlle Kümpel is the manager of ZSL’s Okapi work

Partners and sponsors

ZSL is leading this range-wide okapi project on behalf of ICCN, and relies on the efforts of multiple partners working across the entire okapi range and beyond, including Gilman International Conservation, the Okapi Conservation Project, Wildlife Conservation Society, Lukuru Foundation, Frankfurt Zoological Society and University of Cardiff.

The project is generously funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

More information

News

22-25 May 2013: following months of planning and preparation, ZSL and ICCN hosted a multi-stakeholder workshop in Kisangani, DRC, to develop the first-ever species-wide conservation strategy for the okapi. The workshop highlighted that the okapi is faring worse than scientists previously thought, threatened throughout its range by the presence of dangerous rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners. Participants agreed on actions needed to secure its persistence in the wild.

Studying Okapi Genetics: PhD student Dave Stanton has been conducting a study of okapi genetics as part of ZSL's range-wide okapi conservation project. The results are expected to inform conservation efforts going into the future.