The Okapi, a Forest Ambassador
The okapi is an endemic species of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is the national conservation symbol of the country. As a flagship species, the okapi serves as an ambassador representing the incredible diversity of species found in the region.
Perhaps better known for civil unrest, refugees and volcanoes, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds significant blocks of forest, harboring unique wildlife and plants including endemic species like the bonobo, eastern lowland gorilla, Congo peafowl and the distinct wildlife treasure, the okapi. A conservation icon in the DRC, the okapi leads a mysterious solitary life, this relative of the giraffe is entirely dependent on the forest sanctuary for its survival. The okapi is an ambassador representing the diversity of the forest while helping garner support for conservation. Protecting the okapi and their equatorial rainforest home benefits thousands of species, and quite possibly the entire world.
In 1901 Sir Harry Johnston, Governor of Uganda obtained okapi skins and skulls sending them on to the British Museum where they were revealed to western science. Known now as Okapia johnstoni, the okapi is not a zebra but a most unique forest giraffe, endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly as mysterious today as when it was first described, the okapi lives a mostly solitary existence, feeding strictly on the abundance of leaves and shoots available in the forest undergrowth. The Ituri Forest (northeastern DRC) once held dense populations of okapi and a capture station was established by the Belgians in the town of Epulu during the country’s colonial period and okapi from the station were exported to zoos in Europe and the US. The Epulu Station now serves as the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (13,760 sq km) which is managed by the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature with support from partners such as UNESCO, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Okapi Conservation Project. The descendants of okapi from Epulu now live in zoos and serve as ambassadors for the species, generating significant support from zoos for okapi and wildlife conservation in the forests of the DR Congo.