Photo showing the effectiveness of an okapi’s camouflage © John and Terese Hart, WCS

Physical Description

The okapi is endemic to the central and north-eastern tropical rainforest of The Democratic Republic of Congo. Its short oily fur acts as waterproofing in the damp rainforest environment. Their distinctive stripes are thought to act as camouflage by breaking up the outline of the body in the light and shade of the forest understory and are unique to each individual, which helps identification. Okapi usually weigh 200-300kg, with females taller and heavier than males. The dark blue prehensile tongue is adapted for selective browsing and can be up to 18 inches in length, long enough that the animal uses it to clean its own eyes and ears. Okapi share a number of characteristics with giraffe, including bilobate canine teeth and skin covered horn-like structures called ossicones in males.

Sensory adaptations

Okapi can move their large ears independently, and have large auditory bullae and auditory lobes in the brain. Much of the okapi’s anatomy is specifically adapted to its dense forest environment, providing both excellent hearing and camouflage for protection and the ability to interact with its environment using a highly sensitive olfactory system and tongue.

Almost all information on okapi ecology comes from a groundbreaking radio collar study conducted in the 1980s © John and Terese Hart, WCS

Ecology

The okapi is unique among the large mammals of the Congolese forest in having a diet composed solely of understorey foliage. They eat only young leaves from more than 100 plant species. Home ranges are well defined and non-exclusive, usually about 4-7km2 for adult females. Adult males’ ranges can cover up to 10-17km2, presumably to give access to a number of females. Okapi do not return to regular feeding sites and daily movement varies between 2.5km and 4km for an adult. They follow regular pathways through the trees, a trait making them vulnerable to pitfall and large snare traps.

Okapi are thought to be vulnerable to predation by leopards. Longevity in the wild is unknown, but okapi typically live 15-30 years in captivity, becoming sexually mature at around 2 years of age. Generation time for the okapi has been estimated at 10 years based on analysis of the European and North American captive population. Gestation lasts an average of 426 days in captive females, who give birth to a single calf. Calves are usually able to stand after thirty minutes, but for the first few months of their life spend most of the day hiding while their mothers forage. Infants first defecate 1-2 months after birth, perhaps as an adaptation to reduce the chances of predator detection. One calf tracked by radio-collar was independent at approximately 9 months of age.

Preliminary studies indicate that okapi are not highly social animals. While individuals may utilise sections of forest simultaneously, they do not form bonds or tight-knit groups.

In 2013, the GOSG completed an IUCN Red List re-assessment of the okapi, which is now listed as ‘Endangered’. Information on threats faced by the okapi is given under the ‘Threats’ section. As relatively little is known about okapi biology or ecology, it is difficult to know how these threats impact on the okapi. What we do know is that okapi populations are declining, with surveys in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (RFO) showing an important decline in okapi dung densities in 1995-2007, and patrol reports suggesting a further decline from 2008-2013.

A range of current conservation and research projects are being conducted by GOSG members to understand and counteract the factors contributing to this decline, and there is significant scope and need for future research on a broad range of okapi conservation issues.

The most important conservation requirements for the okapi, as laid out in the conservation strategy, are:

  1. From now until 2023, viable populations of okapi are effectively protected, threats are reduced and populations are stable or increasing, in relation to the baseline data
  1. Ex situ populations of okapi are managed to maximise their benefit to the conservation of wild okapi

The lack of research undertaken on okapi conservation to date means there is significant scope and need for research on a range of okapi conservation issues.

Deckchairs made from okapi skin, found near Virunga National Park

Threats

Forest Loss

The major threat to okapi populations is habitat loss due to logging and human settlement including illegal occupation of protected areas. While DRC’s forests are still relatively intact compared to those in many other African countries, estimates from satellite data suggest that almost two million hectares or 2.3% of the total forest cover present in the year 2000, was lost between 2000 and 2010. Protected areas experienced a mean rate of loss roughly half that suffered across the country as a whole. The threat posed by deforestation is likely to increase over the coming years; approximately one-third of the okapi’s known area of occupancy is likely to be at risk of major incursions during the first quarter of this century. Areas of forest at greatest risk include the Beni and Kisangani areas, the Rubi-Tele Reserve, and the western limits of the species’ historic range in the Ebola River basin.

Hunting

The extent to which hunting impacts okapi remains poorly understood. Bushmeat research in DRC has tended to focus on primates and smaller ungulates such as duiker which are easier prey to manage and more heavily targeted by hunters. In some areas, such as around Virunga National Park, okapi are not a preferred bushmeat species for either hunters or consumers but are nonetheless killed opportunistically. In others, for instance in the Twabinga-Mundo region, locals report that okapi is the most prized bushmeat available. In the area around Buta and Aketi, hunting is believed by locals to have been directly responsible for the extirpation of okapi populations (10 okapi skins and carcasses were found in the Buta-Aketi area between 2007 and 2008 and an additional 11 skins and carcasses were documented in the Rubi-Tele area in 2011). Up to thirty okapi a year are killed in the Abumonbanzi Reserve near Gbadolite and sold as bongo meat. A study of the bushmeat market in Kisangani found that while no okapi bushmeat was recorded for sale in 2002, in 2008-2009 three instances of okapi bushmeat were recorded. This increase was attributed to a rise in hunting within the nearby RFO, made possible by the rehabilitation of the Kisangani-Ituri road. As smaller animals become scarcer due to overhunting, extra pressure may be transferred onto okapi.

Evidence of two recently killed okapi near Gbadolite © ICCN
An okapi killed during the attack on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve headquarters © WCS
Armed Conflict

An influx of refugees after the Rwandan genocide and two consecutive civil wars between 1996 and 2003 placed unprecedented pressure on biodiversity around the turn of the century as refugees and armed groups hunted and deforested to support themselves. Armed gangs continue to roam parts of the okapi range and disrupt conservation efforts. In June 2012 the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve were attacked by a gang of poachers and miners in retaliation for disruption of their activities, with seven people and all 14 captive okapi killed. The park authorities’ infrastructure and equipment was damaged, and thousands of miners entered the reserve. Since April 2014, ICCN has reduced illegal activities, and in April 2015 a total of 10,690 miners had been evicted and 23 mines had been cleared out, with ICCN re-establishing control of over 50% of the reserve.

Population Growth

The annual human population growth rate in DRC is estimated at 2.6%, which leads to a doubling of the population every 35–40 years. In the context of widespread poverty and breakdown of state services, this growth intensifies the negative impacts due to deforestation, exploitation, and unsustainable use of natural resources.

Inadequate Protection

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Maiko National Park, which contain the two largest populations of okapi, have full legal protection and hunting of okapi is prohibited throughout the entire country. The extent to which this protection can be enforced is limited, however. Fully armed rebel forces are amongst those conducting illegal activities and rangers are poorly equipped to deal with them. The small number of rangers that can be employed to cover vast areas demonstrates how inadequate resources are. There are now some efforts to increase the numbers of rangers in protected areas. For example, in 2015, with the additional new trained rangers, the RFO will have120 rangers in total.

A number of conservation and research projects have been conducted throughout the okapi range.

Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) 

The Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) was first conceived to protect Virunga National Park, which was created in 1925 as the first park in Africa. ICCN’s scope has subsequently expanded to include all of DRC’s protected areas and its duties now include:

  • Management and conservation of DRC’s biodiversity in protected areas;
  • Promotion of scientific research;
  • Development of eco-tourism within the framework of conservation;
  • Development of populations living around protected areas.

ICCN rangers risk their lives on a daily basis patrolling protected areas, removing snares, arresting poachers and clearing out hunting and mining camps, making ICCN the primary partner essential in all the initiatives below.

Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), Okapi Wildlife Reserve

Established in 1987, the OCP works within the RFO to protect the tropical forest habitat of the okapi, as well as the culture of the local indigenous people, the Mbuti pygmies. The OCP’s work on the ground includes:

  • Capacity building: the OCP trains and equips ICCN guards, and seeks to improve ICCN infrastructure, building accommodation security stations, etc. within the RFO.
  • Agroforestry: the OCP agroforestry team has introduced an alternative to slash and burn agriculture in the form of nitrogen fixing plants called legumes. The Leucaena tree can increase crop yields by 25% and extend the productivity of the soil by 3-4 years when planted between rows of crops. Land can be returned to agricultural use within 3 years instead of the 15 years experienced with more traditional farming methods, significantly slowing the spread of slash and burn practices. When the trees are cut back they provide timber, firewood and browse for goats. The OCP reports high levels of interest in the programme and that improving food production has resulted in people being more inclined to be supportive of the rules and restrictions that protect the forest from over exploitation.
  • Community assistance: the OCP has provided assistance by constructing schools, health clinics and fresh water sources, and supplying school materials and medicines. These efforts provide tangible assistance to people living in the reserve and engender a vested interest in the preservation of the RFO’s forests and wildlife. The main objective here is to raise awareness of and support for conservation amongst local populations.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

WCS has supported great ape conservation and wildlife research in the DRC since the 1950’s when it undertook the first long term study of gorillas in the east of the country. In 1985, WCS initiated a field program in the Ituri forest, leading in 1992 to the creation of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, covering nearly 14,000 km2. Between 1994 and 1996, WCS undertook a comprehensive survey of eastern gorillas, leading to proposals for a new protected area in the Itombwe Massif. WCS also has projects in the Salonga National Park.   WCS remained active in DRC through the recent period of civil war, including management of emergency support for DRC’s World Heritage Sites through UNESCO.

WCS is registered in DRC with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and operates under agreements with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the Congolese Ministry of the Environment. The goal of the current WCS program is to support the protection and management of DR Congo’s national parks and to develop policy and political support for nature conservation and natural resource management during the post conflict transition.

Field programs include inventory, infrastructure rehabilitation, boundary demarcation, community conservation, guard training, habitat mapping and applied forestry programs. WCS programs at all levels place an emphasis on training and evaluation of national staff and collaborators.

The Lukuru Foundation / TL2 Project

The Lukuru Foundation leads the TL2 project, which is seeking to establish a new protected area, the Lomami National Park, which will encompass the population of okapi discovered in 2007. The current focus of the project is on reducing the impact of hunting on the fauna within the TL2 landscape by implementing a closed hunting season and supporting education and law enforcement. The Foundation has also conducted surveys around Rubi-Tele and Bafwasende which have recorded okapi.

Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

ZSL started working in DRC in 2001 in support of its five World Heritage Sites. Since 2004 ZSL has been focusing on support and capacity building of Virunga National Park and more recently the nearby Mont Hoyo Reserve, and in 2010 ZSL started leading a collaborative range-wide okapi project on behalf of ICCN. ZSL has led on okapi-focused surveys in Virunga and partnered on field surveys in RFO and Maiko National Park and the surrounding area. ZSL has supported the project of joint ZSL Institute of Zoology/Cardiff University PhD student David Stanton logistically and technically. ZSL proposed a major multi-partner REDD+ project to develop incentives and alternatives for local people to conserve and benefit from the Virunga-Hoyo forest corridor, where okapi may still persist and which links the remaining okapi populations in these two protected areas. ZSL organised the multi-stakeholder okapi conservation strategy workshop in 2013 where okapi were listed as ‘endangered’ and the okapi conservation strategy and status review was developed for which this okapi status review will serve as background material. ZSL is now the institutional co-host for okapi for the new IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, which came into being in March 2013 and supports the development and implementation of the okapi conservation strategy.

The recorded presence of okapi is patchy and concentrated in and around protected areas. Because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of much of its habitat, as well as insecurity in DRC, survey data on okapi is restricted and extensive parts of its range are poorly studied.

Known populations of okapi are distributed in the following areas in DRC:

  • Okapi Wildlife Reserve (RFO)
  • Maiko National Park and surrounding area
  • Virunga National Park and Mont Hoyo Reserve
  • Rubi-Tele Hunting Reserve
  • Tshuapa Lomami Lualaba (TL2) landscape
  • Buta Aketi area
  • North Ubangi/Gbadolite-Businga region

@ZSL

Populations

  • In the wild

The initial IUCN Red List assessment estimated the total population at 10,000-35,000 animals and classed the species as ‘near threatened’ (IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group, 2008). After a recent reassessment (November 2013), the okapi was officially reclassified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, according to a decline in population size >50%, observed during the last 24 years.

  • In captivity: okapi studbook

The Okapi Management Site provides updated data on the okapi studbook, information on the management of captive populations (husbandry, training, enrichment, etc.) and a list of references.

What are okapi?

Although they may look like a cross between a zebra and an antelope, okapi are in fact the closest living relatives of the giraffe; together they make up the group known as the giraffids. Okapi are a shy and gentle species whose diet consists entirely of foliage from rainforest trees.

Why ‘okapi’?

Okapi derives from the name given to it by the Lese tribes local to the area of its discovery. They called it ‘o’api’, which is a compound of two Lese words, oka, a verb meaning to cut, and kpi, a noun referring to the design made on pygmy arrows by wrapping the arrow with bark so as to leave stripes when scorched by fire. The stripes on the legs of the okapi resemble these stripes on the arrow shafts.

Where are okapi found?

Okapi exist only within the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The greatest concentrations of okapi occur within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Maiko National Park.

Why do okapi need conservation action? I didn’t realise they were endangered.

It is true that until late 2013 okapi were classified on the IUCN Red List as ‘near threatened’. This was mainly due to a lack of evidence regarding trends in their population. In fact, studies show a 43% decline within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve between 1995 and 2007, and data from ranger patrols conducted from 2007-2012 suggest this decline may have continued to the present day. In light of this evidence the okapi has been reclassified as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. The threats facing okapi are numerous and, unless their present rate of decline is halted, extinction is likely.