September 19, 2016
Okapi: Rare Rainforest Giraffe
- as seen by -Peter M. Umunay
Okapis, an unusual member of the giraffe family, are endemic to the rainforest of northeast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The largest remaining population is found in the Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), a world heritage site, which covers 20 percent of the Ituri landscape located in the DRC. My first visit to the reserve was in January 2007 to start a job with the Wildlife Conservation Society. The place was so beautiful and had a zoo in which 21 protected okapis were exhibited.
My field assistants were always watching for these endangered species in the wild.
“Okapis walk on the trails to enjoy sunlight, and they don’t like to touch wet leaves, so we might see at least one around noon, or after the rain,” said Avion, a senior member of my field team. He was right. I spent 11 months in the reserve and saw okapis there, and in the forest, nearly every day.
Several years later, I moved to the United States to pursue my Master’s degree and met an okapi at the Bronx Zoo in New York. This is a new world for the okapi – full of people that envision a time where they can live in harmony with nature.
Unfortunately, the natural world of okapis is threatened. The 21 okapis that I had seen at the OFR’s zoo were killed by a militia group – their goal was to sabotage conservation efforts. Other human activities leading to the decline of okapis, from about 5,000 individuals in 1995 to less than half that now, include illegal gold mining, bushmeat hunting, and logging that has fragmented the forests in and around the reserve.
We need to protect these rare rainforest giraffes and the wild place where they live. Scientific research, law enforcement, education, and conservation strategies and actions will make the difference.