By John R. Platt
Better late than never? This week the International Union for Conservation of Natural Resources, which publishes the IUCN Red List of threatened species, listed the rare and iconic okapi (Okapia johnstoni) as endangered, something the organization acknowledges should have been done back in 2008. The brown-and-white striped forest-dwelling species—which looks vaguely like a zebra but is actually related to giraffes—has lost at least 50 percent of its population since 1995 due to poaching and habitat loss. The species had previously been listed under the Red List category of “near threatened.”
The change in status for the okapi shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has followed the ongoing violence and conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the only nation in which the species is found. “Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades,” Noëlle Kümpel co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, said in a press release on October 25. “Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing [the okapi's] survival.” The DRC already has laws in place to protect okapi, which are considered the country’s national animal, but the constant presence of armed rebels and militias makes enforcement difficult if not impossible.
In fact, it is these armed groups that currently pose the greatest threat to okapi. “These groups,” the IUCN reports, “prevent effective conservation action, even surveys and monitoring in most sites, and engage in and facilitate elephant poaching, bushmeat hunting, illegal mining (gold, coltan and diamonds), illegal logging, charcoal production and agricultural encroachment.”
On their Facebook page, the Okapi Conservation Project said that improved census techniques have helped to establish the fact that highly camouflaged and hard to count okapi are actually endangered and blamed war and deforestation on the population decline. “We’re sad it’s official,” the organization wrote. “Hopefully it increases awareness and helps both the okapi and species in similar circumstances.”