The gentle, elegant okapi – the “forest giraffe of the Congo” has officially been reclassified as ‘Endangered’ in the newly released International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. A species indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), the okapi is the national symbol of its country and one of the oldest mammals left on earth. Only known to the Western world since 1901, this elusive species is nearly impossible to observe in the dense tropic forests where it lives because its sense of hearing and smell are extremely acute.
Following a reassessment led by the Congolese nature conservation agency (ICCN) and partners including the Zoological Society of London, the Okapi Conservation Project, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the okapi moves up two rungs from its original Red List classification of “Near Threatened” to “Endangered.”
The okapi’s numbers have been steadily declining since 1995, due to a combination of armed conflict, human settlement, deforestation and poaching. The first Okapi Conservation Strategy Workshop (completed in June 2013) found that the population has declined to approximately 10,000 to 15,000 animals in the wild, down from an estimated 40,000 a decade ago. Over 40% of the okapi left on earth live in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve where OCP works with ICCN rangers and local communities to protect the unique biodiversity of the Ituri Forest.
“The reclassification of the okapi as an endangered species speaks to the importance of raising awareness about this unique species whose habitat has been overrun by armed groups engaging in poaching and in illegal mining disrupting ICCN efforts to protect the wildlife and people of the region” says John Lukas, President and Founder of the Okapi Conservation Project. “The Okapi Conservation Project is committed to protecting the natural habitat of the okapi to prevent further population decline.”
The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), a non-profit organization founded in 1987, operates in the DRC to protect the natural habitat of the okapi and the indigenous Mbuti people living in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, one of the most biologically diverse areas in all of Africa. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve covers a 13,700-sq-km tract of the Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC. It was created by the Congolese government in 1992 and became a World Heritage Site in 1996 as a testament to preserve the rare plant and animal life and human cultures found within the Reserve.