Okapi conservation

Okapi

Because of its shy nature and the challenges of fieldwork in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, obtaining accurate and up to date information on the okapi has been a major conservation challenge. In 2010, ZSL started a collaborative effort to carry out the first range-wide conservation status review of this little-known but iconic species. This research led to the reassessment of the okapi as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and laid the foundations for the development of the first okapi conservation strategy, which outlines the conservation measures to be taken to ensure the persistence of this species in the future.

Why we were there

Okapi were first discovered in Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): the oldest and most biodiverse national park in Africa. Virunga 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. Since 2001, ZSL has worked to rebuild the capacity of the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, to restore the long-term integrity of the park and other protected areas in the okapi’s range. Sadly, as a result of political unrest and tragic attacks on staff and okapi, ZSL was forced to suspend operations in DRC in 2013.

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 investigated the threats faced by the Watalinga okapi population and concluded that its local extinction was likely unless immediate conservation action was taken. A rehabilitated 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 and develop a strategy for its conservation. Collating historic and current okapi survey data and carrying out genetic analyses has allowed us to understand the distribution, abundance and threats to okapi across its range. This has facilitated the development of new tools to monitor okapi, underpinned the reassessment of the okapi as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and enabled the development of the first-ever okapi conservation strategy. We also trained staff from ICCN and partner organisations to build capacity for future okapi management. A workshop was held in May 2013 in DRC with multiple stakeholders from across the okapi’s range 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 was formally established. The aim of the group is 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. 

Development of an official GOSG website is underway, but in the meantime, to find out more go to: www.IUCN.org

 

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 Endangered in the IUCN Red List (thanks to an assessment led by ZSL in 2013). ZSL's relationship with the okapi dates back to its official discovery in 1901 by a ZSL Fellow.

Studying okapi genetics

Joint ZSL Insitute of Zoology and Cardiff University 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.

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 (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), and relies on the efforts of multiple partners working across the entire okapi range and beyond, including the Okapi Conservation Project, Wildlife Conservation Society, Lukuru Foundation 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 okapi 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.

26 November 2013: Following a reassessment of the species’ conservation status at the May multistakeholder workshop, the okapi is announced by IUCN as ‘Endangered’ on its Red List, triggering substantial media interest

27 November 2013: A special evening of public talks on okapi conservation and research is held at ZSL’s meeting rooms in London, attracting over 100 people

April 2014: PhD student Dave Stanton has just completed his PhD study of okapi genetics as part of ZSL's range-wide okapi conservation project.