First ever pictures of Africa’s “unicorn”
Saturday 11 October 2008
An African animal so secretive it was once believed to be a mythical unicorn has been caught on camera in the wild for the first time by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
Camera traps set up by ZSL and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have captured landmark pictures of the mysterious okapi in Virunga National Park - proving that the species is still surviving there despite over a decade of civil conflict.
Dr Noelle Kumpel, ZSL’s Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme Manager, said: “To have captured the first ever photographs of such a charismatic creature is amazing, and particularly special for ZSL given that the species was originally described here over a century ago. Okapi are very shy and rare animals - which is why conventional surveys only tend to record droppings and other signs of their presence.”
Conservationists made the exciting discovery of the species’ tracks in 2006, after they were last seen in the Park nearly 50 years ago, on the west bank of the Semliki River. The new ZSL-led survey has not only captured the first pictures of okapi roaming in the wild, but has also revealed the presence of a previously unknown population on the east side of the River.
Okapis, which have a black, prehensile giraffe-like tongue and zebra-like stripes on their behind, were unknown to the western world until the early 20th Century when the British governor of Uganda and Fellow of ZSL, Sir Harry Johnston, sent a complete skin and a skull belonging to the creature to the Society. These remains enabled ZSL scientists to describe the new species in 1901 as the closest living relative of the giraffe.
Thierry Lusenge, a key member of ZSL’s DRC survey team, added: “The photographs clearly show the stripes on their rear, which act like unique fingerprints. We have already identified three individuals, and further survey work will enable us to estimate population numbers and distribution in and around the Park, which is a critical first step in targeting conservation efforts.”
The exact status of this secretive species is unknown as access to the forests of DRC is limited by civil conflict and poor infrastructure, making survey work difficult. Okapi are only known to inhabit three protected areas, of which Virunga National Park is one, but even Virunga’s newly-discovered and still largely unknown population is under threat from poaching. Okapi meat, reportedly from the Park, is now regularly on sale in the nearby town of Beni. The ZSL survey team has warned that if hunting continues at this rate, okapi could become extinct in the Park within a few years.
Norbert Mushenzi, deputy director of Virunga National Park for ICCN, says: “Okapi are an emblematic species for the Congolese and are even pictured on the ICCN logo. The rangers and I are incredibly excited to have found evidence of okapi still surviving here, as this gives added value to the Park.”
Together ZSL and ICCN plan to continue researching the species’ status in these little-known forests. ZSL scientists believe the okapi population in and around Virunga National Park needs urgent attention; they are currently looking for additional funds for a more comprehensive, community-based project to conserve this threatened population in the long-term.
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Notes to editors
The okapi has a short, dense, velvety coat and a long, black, prehensile tongue like the giraffe. Native to the tropical rainforests of central Africa, and now only known from DRC, the young use their mother’s unique pattern of stripes on her hindquarters to identify her. The main threat to wild okapi is the commercial bushmeat trade. Updates on ZSL’s okapi project, including Thierry’s blog, are available on www.zsl.org/field-conservation.
- Virunga National Park (DRC),*founded in 1925, is Africa’s oldest national park and contains the greatest range of habitats and vertebrate species diversity of any African park. In the last 30 years, conservation management in the DRC has been severely constrained by three successive decades of dictatorial rule, economic collapse and armed conflict. The Park is situated in North Kivu Province, which has had to cope with an influx of nearly 2 million refugees. As a result, its borders have been eroded, permanent settlements (fisheries, pastoralists, agriculturalists) within the park have increased, and military camps have been set up, leading to massive deforestation and poaching. Designated by UNESCO as Africa’s first natural World Heritage Site, in 1994 it was listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger. While the national wildlife authority – the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) - has remained committed to its conservation, its management capacity has been severely hampered. ICCN is working with NGO partners to restore the integrity of Virunga National Park.
Donations towards the okapi conservation project can be made via www.zsl.org or by sending cheques made payable to the Zoological Society of London to Dr Noelle Kumpel, Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme, Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RY.
ZSL’s three month okapi study is part of a larger EU-funded conservation project to rebuild the capacity of Virunga National Park, though activities such as rehabilitating infrastructure, supporting rangers and patrols and training ICCN staff. In addition to conducting forest surveys, the okapi project is assessing the threats to okapi survival and working with local communities to conserve this unique species.
A previous survey carried out in 2006 by WWF documented the presence of okapi from tracks and sign on the west bank of the Semliki River in Virunga National Park’s northern sector, confirming its presence inside the Park.
ZSL’s Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme is centred on equatorial Africa, and focuses on capacity building, training, management support, research and monitoring with stakeholders such as governments, industry and local communities, in Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research in the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation in over 40 countries worldwide.
Contact: Lynsey Ford, 0207 449 6288