Giraffe and okapi: new insights into Africa’s disappearing megafauna

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The giraffe is loved and known across the world, but very few people are aware that we are losing both this iconic species, and its only close living relative, the elusive okapi, at an unprecedented and alarming rate.

Okapi camera trap
Okapi caught on camera trap by ZSL and ICCN, Virunga National Park

Giraffe and okapi are the only living species in the Giraffidae family and share a number of common features, such as elongated necks and long, dark-coloured tongues (both adaptations for feeding on tree leaves). The giraffe is found in savannah regions of 21 countries across sub-Saharan Africa while its forest cousin, the shy and mysterious okapi, is restricted to the dense, lowland rainforests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Giraffe numbers have plummeted from 140,000 in the late 1990s to less than 80,000 today. In the past 30 years, the giraffe has become extinct in at least 7 African countries and okapi numbers are thought to have halved. This dramatic loss has gone largely unnoticed, even by seasoned conservationists. The main threats to both species are habitat loss and, increasingly, illegal hunting and poaching.

Giraffe at ZSL London Zoo
Giraffe at ZSL London Zoo

We have both giraffe and okapi here at ZSL London Zoo and they are some of the most popular animals on display. ZSL is involved in both giraffe and okapi conservation in the wild and has a particularly long and ongoing history with okapi. The okapi was formally described at a meeting of the Society in 1901, ZSL and ICCN (the Congolese nature conservation institute) captured the first camera trap photos of okapi in the wild in 2008, ZSL and ICCN launched a major collaborative project in 2010 to assess the status of okapi across its range and develop the first ever okapi conservation strategy, and ZSL and Cardiff University completed a pioneering okapi genetics study in 2014. I’ve been involved in all of these exciting achievements – except for the first one! – and now co-chair the okapi side of the newly-formed IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, co-hosted by ZSL and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), which launched in 2013.

The Specialist Group is currently conducting the first-ever detailed assessment of giraffe as a species as well as all its 9 subspecies and it is expected that by early 2016 most, if not all, will end up in one of the IUCN Red List threatened categories. The okapi was recently listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List following a workshop in DRC coordinated by the Specialist Group, ZSL and ICCN, bringing together okapi experts from across the species’ range for the first time.

Despite being some of the most iconic and recognisable animals in the world, giraffids are probably also the least-researched large mammals in the world. Colleagues from the Specialist Group and I have been involved in new research published today in a special ‘giraffid’ issue of the African Journal of Ecology.  This research provides important new information on the ecology, population and distribution of giraffe and okapi, shedding light on poorly-understood behaviours such as the function of all-male giraffe herds and the leadership role taken by older females in the group. It also highlights how little we still know about these surprisingly enigmatic African cousins and calls for improved research and monitoring to secure the future of both species before it is too late.

To learn more download our policy paper on giraffe and okapi, our okapi status paper and papers from the rest of the special issue of the African Journal of Ecology (free to download until 31 May 2015)

Read more about ZSL’s okapi conservation work

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