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

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 81 – The Eastern Lowland (Grauer’s) Gorilla

Grauer's Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri)

“The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of humanity”
George Bernard Shaw

During the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the people were not the only ones to suffer.  Populations of gorillas were depleted dramatically.  This highly biodiverse country is among the poorest in the world and this species was, and still is, greatly exploited as a food source.  Mothers have been slain and babies sold on the black market, and parts of the animals have been traded for medicinal usage.  The species can currently be found in an area where refugees, poachers and militia still abound.Kijivu, a captive lowland gorilla, feeds her one-day-old infant, at a zoo in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday. Kijivu gave birth to the baby Photo Michal Dolezal

The Eastern lowland gorilla, also known as Grauer’s gorilla, is the largest of all the gorilla species and one of the five great apes; in the company of orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and man.  It is one of two sub-species of eastern gorilla found in Africa.  The other is the critically endangered mountain gorilla. The eastern lowland gorilla is far more numerous than the mountain gorilla, but none-the-less, still endangered.

Having heavy bodies, large hands equipped with opposable thumbs, short muzzles and dark-grey to black coats, this species is well-adapted to jungle life.  The backs of the male gorillas, upon reaching maturity, will change to a silvery-white colour, giving rise to the name ‘silverback’.  Faces are hairless, as are hands, ears and feet.  As the animals reaches maturity, the chest will lose hair, too.

Fully grown male Eastern lowland gorillas can weigh up to four hundred pounds and reach a height of five and a half feet when upright.  There is one documented case of a silverback reaching five feet eleven inches – but this is rare.

Gorillas are diurnal and do most of their foraging early morning and late in the day.  The rest of their time is spent sleeping, playing and socially grooming.  Gorillas build, sleep and birth in nests in the trees.  They live in groups of thirty-five to fifty individuals, with the most dominant silverback at the head of the group.

Silverback screamingGorillas, like other primates, have various means of communicating with each other and intruders.  In the case of unwanted callers, males defend their territory, females and babies with a combination of sheer bulk and flamboyant displays of charging and chest beating.  Barks, hoots, roars and screams complete this intimidating package.  Visual gestures, body language and facial expressions are also forms of communication.

Gorillas are polygynous.  There is no set breeding season and the dominant silverback will father most of the offspring.  After a gestation period of about eight and a half months, one  infant will be born (very occasionally two).  Infants weigh roughly four and a half pounds.  Newborns can crawl after nine weeks and walk at eight to nine months. They will nurse for three years or more, remaining in the mother’s nest.  Full maturity comes at about twelve years of age.  Females give birth only once every three or four years.  Unfortunately, there is a very high infant mortality rate.  This greatly affects the Eastern lowland gorilla’s ability to replenish its numbers.

Montane, transitional and lowland tropical forests.
Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What they eat
Plants, leaves, stems and bark, fruits and seeds.  They also occasionally consume ants and termites.
Loss of habitat due to agricultural expansion, degradation of habitat from illegal logging, illegal mining and road building for the same, and charcoal production.  Poaching for bushmeat and medicine, and the capture and trade of baby gorillas has had a detrimental affect on the population, due to the slow reproductive rates of this already diminishing species.   Disease; epidemics such as ebola and diseases passed on by humans are also a large threat.
Status: Endangered
The Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.
The IUCN has come together with various other well-known international organisations to stave off the extinction of this wonderful primate (see related articles below).  Here is what the IUCN have to say:
“Today, the remaining Grauer’s Gorilla populations are small and localised and occur in regions of intense illegal mining activity and insecurity,” said Stuart Nixon of Fauna & Flora International. “Until we can complete the much-needed surveys, our best guess is that between 2,000 and 10,000 gorillas remain in 14 isolated populations. Without a dedicated effort, the next 10 years will be marked by continuing local extinctions of this forgotten gorilla” (see related articles below).
Other organisations, such as WildLife Direct (also see related articles below), have their own worthy conservation programs for the gorillas.

Baby Eastern lowland gorilla resued from poachers - Virunga Gorilla Park 2011 by LuAnne CaddRelated Articles
Pride: a secret weapon in protecting primates 
Grauer’s Gorilla caught in the crossfire of conflict (IUCN) 
WildLife Direct-  Keeping our gorillas safe and healthy!
Rarest gorillas lose half their habitat in 20 years
Gorillas in the Mist…
Human virus linked to mountain gorilla deaths

Sir David Attenborough launches crowdfunding campaign to save mountain gorillas