We have a world rhino day, a world elephant day, and (one of my favourites) a world pangolin day. Actually there are quite a few days set aside to celebrate and raise awareness of some of our threatened species, but why no okapi day? This was the closing suggestion posed by the audience at the end of an event at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) on 27th December 2013; an evening symposium on conservation of the okapi. Actually, this wasn’t quite the closing. We’ll get to that. The event was hosted by the Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Okapi-showing-walking-gait

In fact, this week was the closest we’ve had to a world okapi day, after they became big news. The day before, Tuesday 26th November, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that okapi are now in the ‘endangered’ category. Extinction in the wild is a real possibility.

Okapi are the only living relation to giraffe. They represent an insight into the past, as their ancestors would have been among the first recognisable giraffids. Okapi subsequently evolved from this stock, and found themselves a nice niche in the forests of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here they have lived pretty much unchanged for the last 10-15 or so million years.  Their relatively recent discovery in 1901 provided fuel for many ‘lost world’ fantasies.

Plate from the original 1905 paper describing their disovery
Plate from the original 1905 paper describing their disovery. Click for link to paper.

Okapi are cool animals. With their mad mix of zebra patterned hindlimbs, velvet brown body, black prehensile tongue and pointed ossicones, they are among the most striking of mammals. They’re considered to be DRC’s flagship wildlife species, even appearing on Congolese banknotes. In truth, they are shy, solitary, elusive animals. They’re widely yet thinly distributed throughout the dense rainforest. This is why it took so long for western zoologists to find them, and why we still know relatively little about them, compared to other large endangered species. This is of course changing. But learning about their natural habitat, distribution, behaviour and genetics is very difficult. The DRC has been afflicted by civil war since the ‘90s, along with all the associated violence and poverty. Protecting and researching wildlife in DRC is dangerous.

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The evening’s intention was to raise awareness of okapi conservation, and was free for professionals and public alike to attend. The three speakers Dr. Noëlle Kümpel, David Stanton and Jean-Jospeh Mapilanga are affiliated with the specialist group. They spoke in turn about the current plight of okapi, the methods being employed to learn about them, and the realities of field work in DRC.

Dr Kümpel outlined recent conservation efforts. A body of evidence is required before a species can be declared as threatened. The recent assignment of okapi to the endangered category is a result of this work. Efforts over recent years have focused on collating existing information (both from scientific literature and from people’s first hand accounts), estimating current population figures, and establishing groups of skilled people. The specialist group is made up of international and local experts.

Okapi-feeding-tongue-wrapping-around-vegetation
Prehensile tongues and ossicones (the two bony ‘horns’) are traits shared with giraffe

DRC is huge. It contains 60% of Africa’s rainforest (155 million hectares of it). To conservationists, the rainforest represents biodiversity. To others it represents illegal agriculture, logging, gold and diamond mining, and poaching. Poachers will kill for both bushmeat and to make curios. Some participating in these activities are just people trying to live, however many are organised criminals. The exploitation of DRC’s natural resources is contributing to the demise of the rainforest ecosystem.  It’s easy to imagine how the okapi, being unchanged for 15 million years, are struggling to adapt to a fast changing environment. Loss of habitat and hunting are factors that contribute to their lessening numbers. Their long gestation of 14 months also doesn’t help.

The most up to date information suggests that the population has halved over the last decade alone, and is continuing to shrink. The current estimate is that there are somewhere between 10 to 35 thousand individuals left, but actual numbers are suspected to be much lower.Okapi-drinking-in-rainforest

It’s easy to talk about conservation in vague terms like I am. I can use words and phrases like ‘poaching’, ‘loss of habitat’ and ‘plan of action’ to sound like a conservationist. This is all really superficial, and doesn’t represent the complexity of the precarious situation in DRC. For example, we don’t really know how illegal mining is affecting local ecosystems, or how this directly affects the population. We don’t know how much genetic diversity exists in the wild population, and how this diversity is distributed. This is why research is so fundamental in orchestrating conservation. Without it, efforts are misguided at best.

David Stanton of ZSL/University of Cardiff is surveying the okapi population inhabiting an area in the heart of DRC. Because of their elusive nature, his team have had to devise new methods of detection. In the past, faeces have been used as a marker of okapi presence. The trouble with okapi poo, is that it’s pretty much identical to that of the bongo, another DRC resident. Researchers at the University of Cardiff have identified genetic markers that can be readily detected in faecal samples. This is one way that the presence of okapi can now be confirmed in a given area. Other methods include camera trapping. The images snapped in 2008 by ZSL were a first; okapi hadn’t been documented in this area since the late 1950’s.

Okapi are hard to find.
Okapi are hard to find.

The populations are thin, and pocketed around the rainforest. Some of these populations are outside the protected areas. Many of these areas are just too dangerous for conservationists to visit. This makes it difficult to do full surveys, so most of the information at hand comes from the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, in the north east.

The danger of field conservation was sadly embodied by the attack on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve headquarters on 24th June 2012. A group of armed militia stormed the buildings whilst assaulting, killing and taking hostages. Seven people and all fourteen of the resident okapi were killed. The motive of the attack was thought to be aggression against conservationists who are trying to curb illegal poaching and mining. One of the aims of the newly formed Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, is to repair and rebuild following the attack. Jean-Joseph Mapilanga, the director of protected areas spoke evocatively of the struggles of conservation on the ground. The social problems that threaten the okapi’s future are also the problems that hinder conservation efforts.

The recent reassignment of okapi from ‘near threatened’ to ‘threatened’ (Dr Kümpel acknowledged you could see that as an upgrading or downgrading) should be seen as a positive step. Okapi have been threatened for a while, it’s only that we now have the evidence to say so. Hopefully this new status can be the springboard for further research, and ultimately a plan of action.

What’s starkly clear is that these are all human problems. Human problems demand human solutions. Okapi and the people living around the rainforest are inextricably linked. Solutions to social problems will be of benefit to people, okapi and all the species that share the forest.

Okapi day would have been a nice closing idea for the evening. But before the end, Director Jean-Joesph Mapilanga requested that the audience be shown a video to hammer home the reality of field conservation in DRC. Audience members were given the option to leave or stay. The video showed the aftermath of an armed conflict between park rangers and rebels. The person filming caught on camera images of a man who had been shot dead, interspersed with calm yet wide eyed park rangers, whilst gun fire is heard in the background. The audience watched in silence, then afterwards shuffled out of the lecture hall. Drinks afterwards helped to restore the mood.

The video highlighted that awareness alone isn’t enough, and that change can only come from within the country itself. Personally I’d like to see an okapi day happen, but it’s difficult to know how much it would help.  At the very least, it would introduce people to a really nice animal that they previously didn’t know of.

Chris. @thebadlizard

Links, references

Okapi information sheet from ZSL

Talk at ZSL, 27th December 2013. Includes speakers’ details

IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species: Okapi

Okapi conservation at ZSL

Attack on Okapi Wildlife Reserve

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