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Global plan aims to save elu­sive okapi from extinction

pub­lished 20 Feb­ru­ary 2016 | mod­i­fied 20 Feb­ru­ary 2016

IUCN Okapi strategyThe 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.

Okapi con­ser­va­tion sta­tus
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 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 has pre­vented sur­vey teams get­ting on the ground
Dr Noëlle Küm­pel, lead author, ZSL, and Co-​chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Spe­cial­ist Group »

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,”Küm­pel explains.

Okapi walk­ing in the for­est, video made avail­able on YouTube by Okapi­Con­ser­va­tion. The Okapi Con­ser­va­tion Project is located within the Ituri For­est, in the Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of Congo. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was cre­ated in 1992, encom­pass­ing 13,700 square kilo­me­ters, in 1996, it was des­ig­nated as a United Nation’s World Her­itage Site:

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 Wilun­gulacom­ments: “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.”

(Source: IUCN news release, 18.02.2016)

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