The okapi, a close relative of the giraffe found only in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has officially been reclassified as ‘Endangered’ in the newly released International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Nevertheless, through ZSL's longstanding work in Virunga National Park and consultation with partners across DRC, it is clear that the okapi faces tremendous threats to its survival. As a result, in 2010, ZSL launched a major collaborative project to assess the status of the species across its range and develop the first ever okapi conservation strategy. This highlighted that the okapi is faring worse than scientists previously thought, being threatened by poaching and habitat loss, exacerbated by the presence of dangerous groups of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners.
Dr Noëlle Kümpel, manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, says: “The okapi is evolutionary unique and highly distinctive, with a long, prehensile, bluish tongue and zebra-like stripes on its behind.
“It is revered in Congo as a national symbol, even featuring on Congolese franc bank notes but sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades. As a result, there has been widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin.”
Dr David Mallon, Red List Coordinator for the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and facilitator of the workshop, adds: “This was the first ever comprehensive review of the okapi’s status, with some participants travelling overland for three days to attend the workshop, held in central DRC on the banks of the river Congo.”
The newly-formed IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, which is co-hosted by ZSL, will work closely with partner organisations and the Congolese government to carry out priority actions outlined in the strategy to secure the okapi’s future in the wild.
Jean-Joseph Mapilanga, Director of Protected Areas speaking on behalf of the ICCN Executive Director, notes, ‘It is critical to raise awareness of the threats to okapi and pressures on protected areas in DRC, and to support continued government efforts to tackle the challenges linked to impacts of civil conflict and poverty, to enable the long-term survival of this national icon.’