Conserving okapi in DRC
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 of Threatened Species, but due to a combination of its shy nature and the challenges of fieldwork in DRC, accurate and up to date information on okapi across much of its range is lacking. As a result, ZSL has been leading a collaborative effort to carry out the first range-wide conservation status review of this little-known but iconic species. This was completed in early 2013, and the status review served as the background document for the okapi conservation strategy development workshop described below.
Leading range-wide okapi conservation
Through ZSL's work in Virunga National Park (see below) and consultation with partners across DRC, it became clear that okapi are rare and face tremendous threats to survival across much of their range. As a result, in 2010 ZSL launched a major collaborative project to assess the status of okapi across its range and develop the first ever okapi conservation strategy.
The project aims to:
- Collate historic and current okapi survey data and carry out genetic analysis to understand the distribution, abundance and threats to okapi across its range
- Develop new tools for improved okapi monitoring
- Train staff from ICCN and other partner organisations in okapi monitoring methods and analysis, thus building capacity for future okapi management
- Carry out a reassessment of the species conservation status
- Develop an okapi conservation strategy through a participatory, multi-stakeholder process
- Support the implementation of the conservation strategy and continued monitoring of key okapi populations
Rediscovering okapi in Virunga National Park
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.
Impacts of war and development in Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is the oldest and most biodiverse 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. ZSL has been working since 2001 to rebuild the capacity of the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, to restore the long-term integrity of the park.
A study conducted by ZSL in 2008, following the rediscovery of okapi in Virunga National Park, investigated the threats faced by the Watalinga okapi population and concluded that its extinction was likely unless immediate conservation action was taken. This was as a result of the rehabilitation of a road cutting through the park, causing increased pressure from hunting for meat and skins and deforestation for charcoal and timber collection, as well as likely fragmenting the already small okapi population.
Development of the first-ever species-wide okapi conservation strategy
Following months of planning and preparation, a multi-stakeholder workshop to develop the first-ever species-wide conservation strategy for the okapi was held from 22-25 May 2013 in Kisangani, on the banks of the river Congo and in the centre of the okapi's range.
The workshop was hosted by the Governor of DRC’s Orientale Province and organised by ZSL and the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group in partnership with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). Around 40 fieldworkers, government representatives and community chiefs from across the range attended this collaborative, participatory workshop, some journeying by river or road for up to three days each way, demonstrating the importance of this initiative for Congo’s flagship species.
Workshop participants first reviewed and updated the okapi status review prepared by ZSL, and then agreed a vision, goal, objectives and activities necessary to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Once finalised, the new IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group will work to support ICCN and partners to raise awareness and support to implement this strategy.
The workshop highlighted that the okapi is faring worse than scientists previously thought, being threatened throughout its range by the presence of dangerous rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners.
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 the implementation of strategies to conserve the species.
The two co‐chairs for the group are Dr Julian Fennessy (giraffe) and Dr Noëlle Kümpel from ZSL (okapi), while the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and ZSL will provide host institution support to the two branches respectively. Development of an official GOSG website is underway, but in the meantime, to find out more about the GOSG and other IUCN SSC Specialist Groups go to
ZSL's long history with okapi
ZSL's relationship with the okapi dates back to its original discovery. The type specimen, which originated from the Watalinga forest in the north of Virunga National Park, was first scientifically described at a meeting of the Society in 1901.
Okapi genetics study
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.
Visit our okapi blog for updates on ZSL okapi work.
ZSL is leading the range-wide okapi project on behalf of ICCN, and relies on the efforts of multiple partners working across the entire range and beyond, including:
ZSL's current okapi work is generously funded by:
Support our work
We are currently seeking additional funds to support the implementation of the okapi conservation strategy. If you would like to support this work, please