First ever pictures of Africa’s 'unicorn'
Wednesday 10 September 2008
The okapi, an African animal so secretive it was once believed to be a mythical unicorn, has been caught on camera roaming in the wild for the first time by 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.
Okapi, 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.
However 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.
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.