By Jeremy Hance
The discovery of the okapi shocked the world in 1901. African explorer, Henry Stanley, called it "donkey-like," while others thought it a new species of zebra, given the stripes. However, this notoriously-secretive rainforest ungulate proved to be the world's only living relative of the giraffe, making it one of most incredible taxonomic discoveries of the Twentieth Century as well as one of the last large-bodied mammals to be uncovered by scientists. But the future of the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is increasingly in doubt: a new update of the IUCN Red List released today has raised the threatened level for the okapi from Vulnerable to Endangered.
Found only in the Ituri Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the okapi has been hit hard by deforestation, poaching for skins and bushmeat, bycatch in snaring, and, most importantly, roving bands of poachers and rebells.
Nothing typifies the perilous situation of the okapi more than the attack last year on the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Epulu. MaiMai rebels, led by an infamous poacher known simply as Morgan, launched a sneak attach on the station, killing six people and shooting dead 14 captive okapis that were meant as ambassadors of the species to the local community. Reportedly, the poachers were striking back for increased enforcement against wildlife poaching and illegal mining in the reserve.
In fact, the new assessment found that the okapi population with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve had dropped by 43 percent from 1993 to 2007.
"[The Okapi Wildlife Reserve\ was until recently the most effectively protected okapi site with resident rangers and an active conservation program and the overall rate of decline here is inferred to have been equalled or exceeded elsewhere," the assessors write.
Conservationists fear that the species' population has been cut in half since 1995 across its range.
"The Okapi is revered in Congo as a national symbol—it even features on the Congolese franc banknotes," said Noëlle Kümpel co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group. "Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival."
The poachers who attacked the headquarters in Epulu remain at large.