Okapi conservation


Because of its shy nature and the challenges of fieldwork in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), obtaining accurate and up to date information on the okapi has been a major conservation challenge. In 2010, ZSL started a collaborative effort to carry out the first range-wide conservation status review of this little-known but iconic species. This research led to the reassessment of the okapi as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and laid the foundations for the development of the first okapi conservation strategy, which outlines the conservation measures to be taken to ensure the persistence of this species in the future.

Work in DRC

Okapi were first discovered in Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: the oldest and most biodiverse national park in Africa. Virunga 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. Since 2001, ZSL has worked to rebuild the capacity of the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, to restore the long-term integrity of the park and other protected areas in the okapi’s range. Sadly, as a result of political unrest across the okapi's range and tragic attacks on staff and okapi in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve where we were working at the time, ZSL was forced to suspend operations on the ground in DRC in 2013, but continues to support okapi conservation efforts as co-host of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (see below).

Okapi in Virunga

In 2008 ZSL and the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, surveyed the Watalinga forest in northern Virunga National Park 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. ZSL investigated the threats faced by the Watalinga okapi population and concluded that its local extinction was likely unless immediate conservation action was taken. A rehabilitated road cutting through the park had allowed increased pressure from deforestation and hunting for meat and skins.

Leading range-wide okapi conservation

In 2010 ZSL and ICCN launched a major collaborative project to assess the status of okapi across its range and develop a strategy for its conservation. Collating historic and current okapi survey data and carrying out genetic analyses has allowed us to understand the distribution, abundance and threats to okapi across its range. This has facilitated the development of new tools to monitor okapi, underpinned the reassessment of the okapi as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and enabled the development of the first ever okapi conservation strategy and status review, guiding actions for a ten-year period from 2015-2025. We also trained staff from ICCN and partner organisations to build capacity for future okapi management. A workshop was held in May 2013 in DRC with multiple stakeholders from across the okapi’s range to develop this strategy.

Studying okapi genetics

Joint ZSL Institute of Zoology and Cardiff University PhD student Dave Stanton carried out a pioneering study of okapi genetics as part of ZSL's range-wide okapi conservation project, using current and historic dung, skin and bone samples collected with the help of museum and field partners across the okapi's range. He found that okapi are genetically both distinct and diverse, probably as a result of periods of forest fragmentation and expansion in the Congo Basin in the ancient past. His work also confirmed the presence of the okapi on the west bank of the Congo river, provided new information on individual movements, barriers to dispersal and ecology of okapi, and uncovered the relatedness between captive okapi and to those in the wild. Finally, he found that field teams often confused okapi dung with that of the bongo, which has serious implications for the accuracy of dung-based okapi population surveys! Such insights are invaluable in informing future conservation efforts.  Read more about Dave's project and his adventures in search of okapi dung in central Congo on his blog and about his research outputs in our news section.

Safeguarding okapi and forests elephants in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve

The Ituri Landscape harbours the largest remaining population of both okapi and forest elephants in DRC. Unfortunately, even in its namesake core protected area, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (RFO), populations of both species are declining and threatened by poaching and the impacts of illegal mining.  Following a brutal attack by armed poachers on the Reserve headquarters in 2012, killing 7 people and all 14 okapi housed there and destroying infrastructure and equipment, ZSL is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to help ICCN restore the integrity of RFO and implement SMART, an protected area management system which enables managers to put rangers where they are most needed and to monitor the impacts of their patrols so they can adapt patrol effort accordingly.

IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group

In March 2013 the IUCN SSC (Species Survival Commission) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group was formally established. The aim of the group is to attract and strengthen international support for giraffid conservation, provide technical advice on giraffe and okapi and provide an official forum to support strategies to conserve these species. The two co‐chairs for the group are Dr Julian Fennessy from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (for giraffe) and Dr Noëlle Kümpel from ZSL (for okapi). 

To find out more go to www.giraffidsg.org

Image gallery

In 2008 the first full pictures of the elusive okapi in the wild were captured by camera trap during ZSL-ICCN field surveys in the Watalinga (Semliki) forest in the north of Virunga National Park in eastern DRC. View them in our image gallery.


Okapi camera trap image ZSL-ICCN Virunga National Park
Okapi captured by camera trap by ZSL and ICCN in northern Virunga National Park

Project information

Key species

The okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a close relative of the giraffe, is endemic to the tropical forests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List (following an assessment led by ZSL in 2013). ZSL's relationship with the okapi dates back to its official discovery in 1901 by a ZSL Fellow. The size of a small horse, the ‘forest giraffe’ has a chocolate brown coat with distinctive white stripes on its legs and hindquarters, and a 30 cm long, purplish-blue tongue adapted for browsing trees like its better-known cousin.

People involved

  • Dr Noëlle Kümpel is the manager of ZSL’s okapi work and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Partners and sponsors

ZSL is leading this range-wide okapi project on behalf of ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), and relies on the efforts of multiple partners working across the entire okapi range and beyond, including the Okapi Conservation Project, Wildlife Conservation Society, Lukuru Foundation and University of Cardiff.

The project has been generously funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the European Commission, the Natural Environment Research Council, SOS – Save Our Species and Fondation Segré.

More information

Okapi conservation news

18 February 2016: We are excited to announce that the IUCN/ICCN okapi conservation strategy and status review, produced with the support of ZSL, the IUCN SSC Giraffid and Okapi Specialist Group and a huge number of partners and donors, has now been officially published and printed in English and French! This is the first-ever coordinated global strategy focused on this unique and elusive species, highlighting that while we still have much to learn in terms of its ecology and conservation status, it is severely threatened by habitat loss, poaching, armed conflict and increasingly the destruction of its forests by extractives activities.  Among other things, the strategy calls for urgent government and international commitment to support the integrity of key Congolese protected areas from armed militia and illegal extractives activities. Read more here.

21 August 2015: For the first time there was a full session on okapi conservation at the biannual international meeting of giraffid specialists, Giraffe Indaba III, held in South Africa at the Southern African Wildlife College (Hoedspruit) 23 – 28 August 2015.  ZSL’s Dr Noëlle Kümpel presented an update on progress towards the okapi conservation strategy, an overview of Dave Stanton’s genetics work and a poster on behalf of ICCN on efforts to restore the integrity of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Find out more.

18 August 2015: The Mercury (Durban, South Africa) has published two articles that highlight alarming declines in giraffe and okapi numbers, which raise major concerns for the conservation of these two emblematic species in Africa. Read them here.

29 June 2015: ZSL and other members of the African Natural World Heritage Sites Support Network attending the World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany, call for strengthened provisions with the Convention and by States Parties to support the protection of World Heritage sites from extractives activities.  Read the statement.

24 April 2015: A special issue of the African Journal of Ecology focusing on Giraffids includes a policy piece where Dr Noelle Kumpel and Dr Julian Fennessy - co-chairs of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group - draw attention to the ‘silent extinction’ of two iconic African cousins, the giraffe and the okapi, and an article with updated information on the distribution and population status of the okapi by a team from ZSL. You can download the policy paper and the okapi status paper free until 31 May 2015, so be quick!  Read more details here.

20 February 2015: The Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated documentary film VIRUNGA, supported by ZSL and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, has focused global attention on the irreplaceability but numerous threats facing Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, a natural World Heritage Site.  In this blog, we ask, if we can’t protect these critically important areas, which cover less than 1% of the globe, what can we protect? 

20 January 2015: A new study published in Journal of Zoology and led by Dave Stanton of Cardiff University and ZSL's Institute of Zoology investigates the social structure, mating system and dispersal of okapi through a non-invasive genetic approach. Read the abstract

18 November 2014: ZSL joins forces with 8 other world-leading conservation organisations to call for urgent action to protect natural World Heritage sites from industrial mining, oil and gas activities. Read the statement. Download the policy brief on extractives and World Heritage sites. Learn more about ZSL's work on World Heritage

11 November 2014: A paper published in Oryx by Dave Stanton and his colleagues confirms the presence of okapi in the south-west of Congo River, redefining the distribution of this elusive species. Read the abstract

9 July 2014: Our pioneering genetic study, led by Dave Stanton of Cardiff University and ZSL's Institute of Zoology, is published in PLoS One, showing the okapi's ancient evolutionary origins and unexpected resilience. Find out more

11 June 2014: The British oil company, SOCO, releases a statement announcing that following its existing programme of exploration, it will withdraw from Virunga National Park in DRC – and also: “commits not to conduct any operations in any other World Heritage site”. However, the proviso “not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status”, does not quite close the door in the case of Virunga. Read more here.

28 May 2014: PhD student Dave Stanton passes the viva for his PhD study of okapi genetics as part of ZSL's range-wide okapi conservation project - congratulations, Dave!

May 2014: Renowned author Louise Doughty was joined in ZSL London Zoo's giraffe exhibit by ZSL’s Noëlle Kümpel in the first of the year’s ‘Writer’s Talks’, chaired by poet and ZSL Fellow Ruth Padel, on the romanticism and the realities of okapi conservation on the ground.  Read more here.

17 April 2014: Revealing and heart-stopping film, 'Virunga', supported by ZSL, is premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.  Watch the trailer

27 November 2013: A public evening of talks on okapi genetics and conservation takes place, with speakers including Dr Noelle Kumpel, Dave Stanton and the Congolese Director of Protected Areas, Director Jean-Joseph Mapilanga of ICCN.  Read a write-up of the eventRead the abstracts and agenda

26 November 2013: Following a reassessment of the species’ conservation status at the May multistakeholder workshop, the okapi is announced by IUCN as ‘Endangered’ on its Red List of Threatened Species, triggering substantial media interest.  Read more on our website, in the Independent, and on the IUCN website.

19 September 2013: Emmanuel De Merode receives ZSL's inaugural 'Conservationist of the Year' award on behalf of the rangers of Virunga National Park.  Read more here.

2 August 2013: Draw the line' campaign is launched to stop oil exploration in Virunga National Park.  Read the report on our blog.

22-25 May 2013: Following months of planning and preparation, ZSL and ICCN hosts a multi-stakeholder okapi workshop in Kisangani, DRC, to develop the first-ever species-wide conservation strategy for the okapi. The workshop highlights that the okapi is faring worse than scientists previously thought, threatened throughout its range by the presence of dangerous rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners, and participants agree on actions needed to secure its persistence in the wild. Read our blog.

27 March 2013: The IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group is formally established, with Dr Noelle Kumpel of ZSL co-chair for okapi. Read the announcement here.

24 June 2012: A shocking rebel attack takes place at the reserve headquarters and nearby village of Epulu in the Okapi Faunal Reserve in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a key field site for ZSL's collaborative range-wide okapi conservation project.  Learn more in our news story, and our blog.

September-October 2011: Read about joint ZSL Institute of Zoology/Cardiff University PhD student Dave Stanton’s adventures and misadventures in the TL2 region of DRC while on the trail of okapi dung, skin and bone to sample for his project on okapi genetics. This first-ever research is a key part of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project and Dave shows that fieldwork is not for the faint-hearted! Read his series of blogs: part 1 (Arrival in Kindu - 15 Sep), part 2 (Sankuru – 20 Sep), part 3 (Tutu Basin - 29 Sep), part 4 (Lindu to Lomami river - 5 Oct)