Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 87 – The Okapi

Young okapi by Charles Miller IUCN

Young okapi by Charles Miller IUCN

“The joy of killing!  The joy of seeing killing done! – These are traits of the human race at large”
Mark Twain

The IUCN has produced an updated Red List of Threatened Species for 2013.  And on it, this rare and beautiful creature has been moved up a notch from Near Threatened to Endangered. Not just because of habitat loss and poaching, though both are huge threats, but, because mindless, heavily armed, ruthless gangs of rebels have been running wild in a country torn by civil strife for almost twenty years, taking copious amounts of bushmeat and skins.  At the beginning of November, 2013, the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo  were overwhelmed by the Congolese army, backed by the United Nations, and have now surrendered.  But, not before okapi numbers were greatly depleted and conservation efforts in the country brought to a virtual halt.

Okapi with newborn calf  Many may remember the notorious killings in 2012 at the Epulu Conservation and Research Center, where seven people were slaughtered by armed poachers in retaliation for the Center’s part in the hindering of their illegal poaching activities (this was apparently a warning to others).  All fourteen of the peaceful, captive ‘ambassador okapi’ (one of which was a young five-month-old calf), were killed too.  Not for their skins or body parts, the bodies were left on the ground.  They were killed because they were there, and because their existence was meaningful to the villagers and the Center.  And, the poachers did not stop there.  They continued their bloody rampage until incalculable damage was done to both the people and the vicinity.  Fortunately, in the case of Epulu, despite the deaths of men, women and animals, the Center’s activities have  continued as normal.  Now they have the good military at hand to protect them, as the threat of rebels is not yet entirely over.

When unrest and incidents such as these occur, it is easy to see why conservation efforts do not always work.  Those who are so dedicated and strive so hard to protect the wildlife, are left exposed to the same dangers, or thwarted in their mission.Okapi

Following the disarming of the rebels, as you would expect in any forest, habitat loss has now risen back to the top of the okapi’s list of threats.  These enigmatic treasures like plenty of cover and the usual culprits (mining, logging and settlement) have deprived them of this.  Local tribes also hunt them as bushmeat and sell their skins, and Wambutti pygmies use their skins as tribal headbands.

Okapi have very beautiful, striking, velvety coats of many colours.  Those colours include the black and white stripes on the hind quarters and back legs which resemble the zebra. But, in fact, they are far more closely related to giraffe than zebra, hence the nickname ‘forest giraffe’.  Their stunning, unique coats, or skins as they become, are highly prized by poachers.  The disruptive colouration aids camouflage when the sunlight filters through the trees, making them hard to see, but the poachers are persistent.  As with zebra, no two sets of the okapi’s stripes are the same and, like fingerprints, can be used for identification purposes.

OkapiOkapi have large black eyes with poor eyesight and large ears with keen hearing. Their tongues are long (up to eighteen inches in total), blue, and prehensile for stripping leaves from trees; and for personal grooming.

The okapi is diurnal, and solitary except for mother and calf pairings. The breeding season for these mammals is spring to early summer. After a gestation period of fourteen to fifteen months, a single calf will usually be born.  The newborn will weigh between thirty and sixty pounds.  Its weight will double within the first month of life.  Calves occasionally suckle from more than one female.  The calf will be weaned at six months of age. Females birth once every two years.

The retiring nature of the okapi has earned it yet another appellation, that of the African unicorn – rather like the elusive saola in Viet Nam, which is known as the Asian unicorn.

The Okapi is also the Congo’s National Symbol and features on all Congolese banknotes.

Natural Habitat
Closed, high canopy forests, primary and older secondary forests.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Central Africa) within the Ituri tropical rainforests.
What they eat
Understorey foliage (they are known to feed on over one hundred plant species). They also seek out and consume sulphurous, salty red clay for mineral requirements.
Habitat loss due to logging and human settlement, including illegal occupation of protected areas.  Mining and hunting/poaching for meat and skins. Civil War and the aftermath.
Status: Endangered
The Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.
The okapi is not included in any CITES Appendices.
The Okapi is a fully protected species under Congolese law, though any laws have lacked enforcement during the unrest in the Congo.
The IUCN recommends strengthening protection of the protected areas as being the single most important means to ensure the long-term survival of Okapi. The Congolese agency responsible for protected area management, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), is currently both under-staffed and under-funded. The Epulu Conservation and Research Center is the headquarters of the ICCN.
Okapi are kept in various zoos around the world, where breeding programs have been highly successful.
It is believed the rate of decline of the species in the wild has been in excess of fifty percent over three generations.
Natural predators are few. The leopard is one of them.

Related Articles
Tragic losses in the heart of darkness
Poacher known as ‘Morgan’ behind devastating massacre at Okapi Wildlife Reserve
Okapi – the endangered forest giraffe
Okapi and Yellow-breasted bunting take a step closer to extinction 

Endangered Species Red List Updated

22 thoughts on “Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 87 – The Okapi

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  3. What an interesting looking creature. I’ve never seen one or even heard of them for that matter. Now that I have, I would hate to see them wiped off the planet by the moron-brigades. Blessings, Natalie

  4. How beautiful to see them graze, their legs spread out like giraffes do. How lovely and peaceful they are. Ah, the quote … A sordid reality, victims of warfare and of all tragedy that can possible befall upon them. I remember the news on the carnage –painful beyond words. How inexplicablly fateful: “The Okapi is also the Congo’s National Symbol and features on all Congolese banknotes”. 😦 I was thinking of the Okapi lately ♥

    • They are very beautiful, Carmen. It is such a tragedy that so many species have suffered in the Congo during these wars (that keep happening). Not only are they killing the animals, but they also find the need to kill each other, on the animal’s territory. Unfortunately, with mineral resources as valuable as theirs, I doubt the violence will ever stop altogether. Such a terrible shame for the wildlife. 😦

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