Tuesday, October 18, 2016, marked the inaugural World Okapi Day to bring awareness to one of the most elusive large mammals found anywhere in the world. Initially confusing scientists with the stripes of a zebra, the body of a horse, and a head of a giraffe, the okapi was the last major mammal discovered by scientists in 1901 in Africa. Even over 100 years later, many people are still unaware that this unique but endangered forest giraffe even exists.
Okapi are one of the oldest mammal species on Earth and have survived through millions of years of evolution, but they have lost 50 percent of their population in the last 15 years, leaving an estimated 15,000 animals left in their lush rainforest home. The accelerated population decline is largely due to human disturbances such as illegal gold mining and deforestation through slash-and-burn agriculture. These conflicts with people need to be reversed to save this peaceful ungulate and the rest of the animals that share its habitat, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and forest elephants.
To protect this unknown animal, we needed to teach people about its role in saving large tracts of forest. With encouragement from okapi keepers and enthusiasts worldwide, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) worked with zoos and other conservation partners to create a day that focused on teaching everyone about the okapi, through a social media campaign and encouraging them to host their own ‘mini’ events. We wanted to tap into the over 180 million guests that visit zoos throughout the world – especially those that take care of okapi. These are the people that are invested in animals, and whose support we needed to protect okapi in the wild.
The campaign went viral. Hundreds of people and organizations gathered together to teach their friends and families about the enigmatic okapi with their impact reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Zoos, schools, and conservation organizations across the globe – U.S., U.K., Japan, Belgium, Germany, France, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, and even at home in the Democratic Republic of Congo – joined in to celebrate the day. Zookeepers participated by making educational scavenger hunts, providing photo booths, and opportunities to encounter the okapi in person. Though the impact is difficult to measure, the awareness of the plight of the okapi began the first phase of protecting this gentle creature.
Photo credit: Okapi Conservation Project
Photo credit: Jacksonville Zoo and Garden
Child learning about Okapi in Democratic Republic Congo; Photo credit: Okapi Conservation Project
Children learning about the Okapi in Democratic Republic of Congo; Photo credit: Okapi Conservation Project
The Okapi Conservation Project works with a wildlife protection agency, Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) to protect the endemic wildlife and environment of the forest in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Okapi Conservation Project also develops relationships with local communities by providing health clinics and clean sources of water, developing sustainable and profitable farming techniques and empowering women by providing opportunities for enterprise. Supporting communities and addressing their needs allows for discussion about conservation and involves the community in protecting the fauna and flora in their communal lands.
Visit our okapi page to learn more on how you can help.