John Zimmermann/Minden Pictures

A New Deal for the Okapi, Africa’s “Unicorn”

How protecting the okapi could bring income, sanitation, health services, and security to a remote area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

December 13, 2019

There is a curious creature that lurks in the rainforests of Central Africa. It’s about the size of a horse and has zebra stripes on its haunches, but the spikes on its head, not to mention its long, dark tongue, clue you in that this is no pony. Many know this animal as the forest giraffe or the “African unicorn,” but scientists and the local people—who, until fairly recently, have been the only ones to ever see the thing alive in the wild—call it by another name. The okapi.

In fact, the okapi is so elusive in its dense jungle home that western scientists did not officially acknowledge the species, which is thought to be the last living relative of the giraffe, until 1901. (Their description, mind you, came not from a living specimen but from two tufts of striped skin and a skull acquired from the local community.) Perhaps more impressive is that the animals managed to keep their mugs out of the media all the way up until 2008, when the world’s first photo of an okapi in the wild was captured by a Zoological Society of London camera trap.

While the okapi has acquired near-mythical status among western explorers and modern tourism companies, the animals are very much real—and very much endangered. No one knows exactly how widespread the okapi once was or even how many remain; we just know that we can find them in only a few spots across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). One such place is the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which was created in 1992 in northeastern DRC, close to the borders of South Sudan and Uganda. At approximately 5,400 square miles, the reserve is nearly the size of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, while the reserve aims to safeguard the species from extinction, it also puts a target on the okapi’s back.

A wild Okapi caught by a camera trap in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve

Okapi Conservation Project

Okapis in the Crossfire

You don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of Central African history to know that this region has endured widespread violence in recent decades. From 1996 to 2003, the DRC was at the literal center of several wars. In the years that have followed, general lawlessness has often prevailed, especially in remote corners of the country. This, of course, is also where many of the last remaining okapis live, along with other rare species, including forest elephants (which are listed as vulnerable to extinction), bonobos (endangered), and Grauer’s gorillas (critically endangered).

“There was an increase in circulation of automatic weapons after the war,” says Emma Stokes, regional director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for Central Africa. “So poaching kind of got scaled up, in terms of technology.”

At the same time, the region experienced a resource extraction boom thanks to demand for coltan, a rare black ore that has become essential for producing tiny electronics such as smartphones. To get coltan, miners from all over forge deep into the forest, where such activity is outlawed, and dig down into the earth. This has led to pollution, more armed conflict, and increased poaching for food. Illegal mining for gold and diamonds is also a problem.

“It’s incredibly awful, hard work, but you can make a lot of money out of it,” says Stokes in regard to the mining boom.

The thing about poaching and illegal mining is that they thrive on lawlessness—while wildlife reserves and conservation thrive on laws. These two opposing forces have collided again and again in the DRC, with direct and tragic consequences for okapis and those who would protect them.

The Ituri River in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve

Emma Stokes/Wildlife Conservation Society

In June 2012, a group of rebels known as Mai Mai Simba launched a vicious attack at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, apparently as retaliation for a crackdown on poaching and mining there. Over the course of two days, the rebels raped and tortured those who stood in their way (or innocently nearby). They killed six people, including two rangers and two wives of rangers, whom they burned alive. The Mai Mai also took 28 other women hostage. Words fail to describe the human toll.

The reserve also suffered. The rebels torched the facilities, including buildings, generators, and solar panels. And then, in a final act of cruelty, the assailants went into a nearby enclosure that housed 14 okapis and shot the animals, one by one.

“These were okapis that had been captured from the wild,” says Stokes. The idea was that by keeping the animals in a wild-like enclosure where people could actually see them, it might help locals develop a bond with the species everyone was trying to save.

Almost exactly five years later, the Mai Mai rebels struck the Okapi Wildlife Reserve again, this time killing four rangers and a porter in an ambush. We know all about the attack, because at the time the rangers had been showing a crew of journalists a gold mine they’d recently shut down. (Fortunately, the reporters survived, and you can read their harrowing story here.)

The message was clear, says Stokes. The reserve was vulnerable, and the DRC government needed help. The good news is that, as of this fall, the country has a new plan.

The director general of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, Pasteur Cosma Wilungula, presiding over the ceremony for the new management of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Emma Stokes/WCS

A Partnership for People and Okapi

In early October the DRC announced that it had entered into a 10-year public–private partnership, or “PPP,” with the WCS, which has been working in the country for roughly three decades trying to conserve the okapi and other wildlife. Under the agreement, the WCS will take over the day-to-day operations of the protected area.

“The motivation [is] that the NGO [nongovernmental organization] is able to bring more financial and technical resources to the reserve,” says Stokes. “They’re quite effective, and there are already a number of them in DRC, such as in Virunga National Park and Garamba National Park, where they have been quite successful in dealing with very high threat situations.”

So, what kind of resources? Well, in addition to the obvious—more guards, more guns—the okapi PPP is working to bring experts into the communities within the reserve. These include conflict resolution professionals, organizational specialists, and even mining experts who can work to establish and encourage legal operations outside the protected area. The new arrangement has also been trying to fill gaps in infrastructure, such as a lack of clean water, and in education services.

Moreover, “in just the last few days, the Okapi reserve has helped launch a vaccination campaign for both its staff and the community members,” says Stokes. (In addition to its other dangers, ebola has been ravaging the region.) The seemingly random abuses and attacks from armed factions, miners, and poachers—who are often not from the area—have left many local communities feeling abandoned by their government. If the PPP wants to succeed in protecting okapi, it first must provide stability and security to the people.

“I think it’s bigger than just the protection of biodiversity,” says Stokes. “I think that the broader role we really want to see in these protected areas is promoting development for the long term.”

Believe it or not, the allure of rare creatures does still draw tourists to the DRC. And one day, if the PPP succeeds, the okapis and the people who share their forest with them might be able to tap into that lucrative industry too. But for now, progress is measured in the days, weeks, and months that go by without violence—and the knowledge that there are still striped unicorns hiding in the woods.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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