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Okapi Wildlife Reserve

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The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was given its official protected status in 1992 and covers 8,500 square miles of the Ituri rainforest’s 175,000 square kilometers in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The irony is that despite a troubled history marred with civil and tribal unrest, the region is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the African continent. The Ituri consists of lowland tropical forests as well as canopied rainforests that harbor an array of flora and fauna found nowhere else. It is also the home of the fabled okapi which has become the national and moral symbol of not only the reserve. But saving the okapi is not a single goal; saving it means saving thousands of other species as well.

            The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was given its official protected status in 1992 and covers 8,500 square miles of the Ituri rainforest’s 175,000 square kilometers in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The irony is that despite a troubled history marred with civil and tribal unrest, the region is considered one of the most biologically diverse areas in the African continent. The Ituri consists of lowland tropical forests as well as canopied rainforests that harbor an array of flora and fauna found nowhere else (Jenike, 1995).

            The Reserve itself has in its protection such familiar rainforest species as chimpanzees, elephants, hornbills and about several species of monkeys. But its most prominent if not elusive resident is the okapi or the Okapia johnstoni; the only living relative of the giraffe and sometimes called the forest giraffe. Physically, the okapi is a strange if not fascinating creature. With stripes similar to a zebra’s with unusual coloring and markings, it is a shy and gentle animal which uses its camouflage-like coat to elude capture by predators. It is so elusive and naturally quiet that even the native tribes of the Congo rarely encounter or see one (GIC, 2002).

            Because of this rarity and gentleness amid a landscape encroached upon and endangered by various elements, oftentimes violent, the okapi has become the national symbol of conservation efforts in the Congo region. Under the flagship initiative of Gilman International, their Okapi Conservation Project aims to make people around the world aware that saving the okapi and its habitat does not only mean saving one creature; protecting and preserving the habitat also means securing the survival and preservation of millions of other rainforest species of plants and animals (ACF, 2002).

            The conservation project’s success therefore relies on keeping the forest ecosystem intact and protected.

Human intrusions threaten the area

            Human intrusions in the area remain the reserve’s greatest concern. The UNESCO in particular has been extremely vocal and concerned about continuing clashes in the area between militias of the Congo Liberation Movement (MLC), its ally the Congolese Rally for Democracy -National (RCD-N), and the RCD-Kisangani-Liberation Movement (RCD-K-ML). Armed warfare has damaged parts of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve which had been inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996 and on the List of World Heritage in Danger the following year (Kuntz, 2003).

            Specific damages include the looting of the reserve’s station at Epulu as well as the abandonment by the forest rangers who have been threatened by the militias making some of the forest’s species such as elephants vulnerable poaching by the armed groups (Kuntz, 2003). But human intrusion comes for the most part, from the tribes living within and around the area itself. To sustain their daily needs and a growing population, local farmers have resorted to damaging slash and burn methods of agriculture which is slowly encroaching on forest land. To augment their needs, hunting is also prevalent and this prevails despite the presence of reserve guards in the area.
What protections exist to protect and preserve the area?

            By virtue of being an official wildlife reserve as well as its inclusion among the top five sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger (along with the Virunga, Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega and Salonga national parks )the Okapi Wildlife Reserve expects an array of measures and directives from the international community as well as private conservation groups designed to protect its resources (Kuntz, 2003).

            Leading the way in these efforts, the UNESCO at the start of the new millennium gathered local and international support to protect the reserve along with the other four endangered heritage sites as part of its project for the  “Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict: Protecting World Natural Heritage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (Kuntz, 2003). Together with the UN Foundation, the project sought to find the most crucial component to ensure that the protection and preservation of the reserve is carried out with the best means possible which is to solicit political support from the government of Congo itself as well as the rest of the countries involved in the war.

            In this regard, the government of Congo established the Institute Congolese por le Conservation de Nature (ICCN) which is tasked with the protection of the flora and fauna of not only the reserve, but of the entire country as well. The ICCN works with the Gilman International Conservation to implement security and protection measures within the area- a task that entails a substantial budget. Part of the budget has been drawn from the Biodiversity Conservation Program which totaled $4.3 million, but this has since expired when the project reached its completion in 2004 (GIC, 2002).

            The rest of the budget comes from the international community of zoological parks which supports the Okapi Wildlife Reserve’s 90 guards as well as providing them with other benefits such as health care and housing for them and their families. Other important expenses include costs for fuel, patrol rations, field and communication equipment, office supplies, training and infrastructure support (GIC, 2002).

What efforts have been made to further this preservation?

            Preservation in a larger sense is not only preserving the physical numbers of the wildlife or plant species in question, but takes on a much larger sphere that includes the entire ecosystem and of the various elements that comprise it.

            First and foremost is the mission of the conservation project to “develop an economic and educational base on which a functioning okapi reserve can operate” (GIC, 2002). The Gilman International Conservation has created a management plan specifically designed to address issues on furthering preservation. The project heads know that preservation efforts need so much support from outside groups and in this regard, Gilman has been successful in finding the crucial funding to make its management plan workable.

            It has turned the Okapi Conservation Project into a “model example” of how conservation efforts should be- that their intrinsic success depends not on a single source, but should come from the collective awareness and collaborative efforts of all stakeholders. And the stakeholders in this regard are not only the native peoples of the area, the Congo government or conservation groups, but of the entire world as well. The projects tries to impart the message that the Ituri rainforest is but a link connected to a larger link that inevitably includes everyone else; when that link dies, everything else is affected.

            Other preservation efforts are more biological than physical. At present there are only about 79 okapi in zoos around the world, 41 of which are in U.S. institutions and to boost this number, there are captive breeding efforts made to accomplish this objective (AZA, 2007). For those who may be against the concepts of zoos and captured animals, these captive efforts have accomplished much in raising the necessary awareness of the plight of the okapis and of endangered animals in general.

            Preservation has also been furthered by helping the local population. As mentioned earlier, there is the problem of the slash and burn method of agriculture which has reduced essential forest acreage. Part of the conservation efforts is to implement an agro-forestry program tasked to help local farmers utilize their existing land (Lukas, 2007).

            To stave off hunting of endangered species, conservations groups have taught the local people to find alternative protein sources. One of these is the introduction of a cane rat domestication program. Another program taught locals to create a breeding pond where they implemented a fish farming project which produces Tilapia, a versatile fish that breeds and grows quickly as well as being quite flavorful (Lukas, 2007).

What additional measures to insure the preservation of the property would you propose?

            It is ironical that the very people who are blessed with these great natural resources seem to be the ones least interested in protecting them. It is significant to also note that ultimately, the success and continued preservation of the preserve depends on the social and political will of the peoples of the Congo. Can we implement measures which would stop all hostilities and armed conflict? Realistically, we can try, but again, resolution depends on the parties concerned who probably believe that a shy zebra like creature who is actually more of a giraffe, is no big reason for them to set aside their differences. As it is, more than any other prevailing obstacle or problem, war does the most damage.

            During the last civil war, both the people and the wildlife in the area suffered tremendously with scores of elephants, primates and other wildlife killed by troops who had occupied the reserve. Fortunately, not one okapi was lost during the occupation- still; something must be done on a level that would permanently keep any kind of conflict out of the reserve’s confines (Butler, 2007).

            Another important measure to insure preservation of the okapi in particular is to allow more zoos to have more specimens. Part of the key to successfully breed the species is through captive observation and there is currently a lack of substantial numbers of the animal for zoologists to study and observe.

What will be lost if intrusion goes unchecked?

            The okapi’s only natural enemies are animal predators such as leopards and parasitic worms which can make it sick and vulnerable. Despite the fact that its elusiveness may have contributed to its preservation, continued intrusion into its only known habitat will certainly reduce its numbers. The current estimates place about 10,000-25,000 Okapis left in the wild and all living in the DRC (AZA, 2007).

            But as conservation efforts have always emphasized, the collateral damage is even greater. The Ituri forest is also home to a host of other species, both plant and animal and all of these are in danger of being lost if intrusion, whether deliberate or not, goes unchecked.

            But more than just physical numbers of plant and animal species, what will ultimately be lost significantly when intrusion finally destroys the Ituri, is our human integrity to protect the very ecosystems that we depend on. There is much concern that unstable climactic and geo-physical anomalies are the result of human mismanagement and indeed, one forest lost forever to our irresponsibility may add to an already weakened global link.

Appeal to the biological diversity.

            Of the current estimates placing Okapi numbers between 10,000 – 25,000 in the wild, about 5,000 of these are within the reserve itself along with 4,000 elephants, 2,000 leopards, 13 primate species and three species of crocodile. But this just seems to be the tip of the iceberg; there is a staggering 1,500 species of plants and animals. The number of bird species within the reserve is also significant that it is also a bird conservation site (GIC, 2002).

            But it isn’t only plants and animals which contribute to the biological diversity of the reserve; the Ituri is also the home of the Mbuti and Efe pygmies, one of the few remaining genuine forest people tribes on earth (Jenike, 1995).

            These are the reasons why the Gilman International Conservation along with other concerned groups have established a program meant to protect and preserve the biological and cultural significance of the area considered to be one of the last few places on earth where human intervention and care may spell the recovery of a very fragile and important ecosystem.


ACF (2007) Okapi conservation project. Retrieved December 20, 2007 from


AZA (2007) Okapi Fact Sheet. Retrieved December 20, 2007 from http://www.aza.org/

Butler, R.(2007) Human threats to rainforests. Retrieved December 21, 2007 from


GIC (2002) Okapi conservation project. Retrieved December 21, 2007 from


Jenike, D., Jenike, M.(1995) A Walk Through a Rain Forest: Life in the Ituri Forest of    Zaire. Fraklin Watts.

Kuntz, L.I.(2003) UNESCO alarmed about situation in Okapi Wildlife Reserve in          Democratic Republic of Congo. Retrieved December 20, 2007 from

            http://portal0.unesco.org/en/ev.php-  URL_ID=8716&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

Lukas, J. (2007) Okapi conservation project. Retrieved December 20, 2007 from


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