The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, established in 1992, helps protect the habitat of the okapi and many other species, as well as local indiginous people, the Mbuti pygmies. The Reserve encompasses 13,700 square kilometers (1.5 times the area of Yellowstone National Park) of the Ituri Forest in the northeastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the very heart of Africa. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 1996, the Reserve represents a global effort to preserve rare plant and animal life and a significant human culture.
The established preserve protects the Ituri lowland rainforest of the Congo River basin. It harbors a healthy population of about 5,000 okapi, 4,000 elephants, 2,000 leopards, 13 primate species including chimpanzees, three species of crocodile, and many other rainforest species such as forest buffalo, antelope, water chevrotain, and a wide variety of birds and insects. It is considered as one of the most important sites for bird conservation in mainland Africa.
The Ituri Forest is also the cultural center of the Mbuti and Efe pygmies, truly some of the very last “forest people” left on earth. The Okapi Conservation Project’s continued presence in the region and its role as the primary coordinator and supporter of the Reserve has helped to provide stability for the region and its people, even during the devastation and chaos of a six-year-long civil war.
After the intense civil war, relative peace has returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. All military personnel are out of the Reserve and are being disarmed and disbanded. In the wake of the civil war, the wildlife and the people of the region suffered tremendous losses. Scores of elephants, primates and other wildlife were killed by troops occupying the Reserve. Casualties among the local human inhabitants were high; homes, schools and clinics were looted, and people were in daily fear for their lives.
Yet, throughout, the Okapi Project staff continued to provide daily care for the okapi and none of okapi managed in Epulu was lost during the war. Rosmarie Ruf, the Okapi Project Director, and the Reserve’s wardens have worked with steadfast devotion to bring the Reserve back into full operation. Through their determination, for the first time in its history over 95% of the Reserve is now under the active protection of ICCN.