The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), supported by partners including the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and global conservation charity the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), has published the first-ever coordinated global strategy to protect the unique and elusive okapi (Okapia johnstoni) from extinction in the wild.
The 10-year strategy, guided by a detailed review of the species’ status through a range-wide, multi-partner conservation effort, calls for urgent government and international commitment to support the integrity of key Congolese protected areas from armed militia and illegal extractives activities. In 2012, a brutal attack on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve headquarters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) resulted in the deaths of seven people, including an ICCN ranger, as well as all 14 okapi housed at the facility.
Key to the plan, overseen by ZSL on behalf of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group and ICCN, will be safeguarding the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. This protected area at the core of the species’ range has recently come under severe pressure despite World Heritage site status. The influx of thousands of illegal gold miners into the reserve has heightened instability further and, despite investment in infrastructure and wildlife patrols enabling ICCN to regain control of around half of the reserve, recent renewed attacks mean much remains to be done to fully restore long-term security.
Found in the inaccessible forests of north-east DRC, okapi represent the only other living members of the Giraffidae family alongside giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) and are currently classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These rarely-seen ‘forest giraffes’ face numerous threats in the wild including habitat loss, poaching, armed conflict and – increasingly – the destruction of their fragile native forests by extractive (mining and oil) industries.
The strategy’s lead author, ZSL’s Dr Noëlle Kümpel – Co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group – explains: “The okapi is an iconic species for DRC and the wider world. There are still enormous gaps in our knowledge of these creatures, in large part because security concerns across their range have prevented survey teams getting on the ground. But what is clear is the unprecedented pressure and range of threats now facing these rare and amazing animals. This global strategy provides a clear roadmap for joint action to bring them back from the brink of extinction, tackling these wider threats so we can focus on specific actions to better manage and monitor okapi, such as implementing SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology.”
Alongside the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, the species is also found in the northern sector of DRC’s Virunga National Park – another World Heritage site and the most biodiverse protected area on the continent. This area is currently threatened by industrial-scale oil exploration, despite strong opposition and a European Parliament resolution signed in December 2015.
The strategy supports repeated calls from the World Heritage Committee, NGOs and investors to uphold commitments to safeguard natural World Heritage sites from the extractives industry, particularly in the wake of the Virunga case. Most recently, ZSL was one of over 60 organisations to sign a joint statement, released on 21 January 2016, calling for UNESCO and the governments of Uganda and the DRC to agree to stop new oil drilling licenses being awarded in and around the Virunga World Heritage site region.
Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) Director General Pasteur Dr Cosma Wilungula comments: “This first conservation strategy for the okapi emphasises the need for us all to intensify our collective and collaborative efforts to protect the unique ‘forest giraffe’, as well as its habitat, the globally important Congolese forests. In particular, ICCN needs major international support to restore the integrity of our protected areas; around 350 rangers have died for the cause of conserving the okapi and Congo’s other wildlife in the past 10 years alone.”
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