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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Elusive Okapi

Air Date: Week of

The okapi. (Photo: David Eppstein)

The okapi is a rare animal of the giraffe family that is found only in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The creature is revered by pygmies who share their threatened habitat of the Ituri forest. Radio Deutsche Welle's Rupert Cook traveled to the Congo in search of the okapi and to find out about conservation efforts.


GELLERMAN: From the Amazon rainforest, we now travel to the Ituri rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the heart of Africa. It’s here you’ll find one of the rarest animals in the world--the okapi. European colonists called it “the African unicorn” The okapi is an odd-looking animal with striped legs, big ears and a long, black tongue. The okapi shares the Ituri forest with the Mbuti pygmies. The pygmies’ forest habitat has been under threat and so too has the okapi. Rupert Cook of Radio Deutsche Welle set out in search of the okapi and has our report.


COOK: Rainy season in the forests of Ituri province in Northeastern Congo. At its most torrential the curtain of rain reduces visibility to a few meters. While uncomfortable for humans, the downpour is ideal cover for the okapi, a rare and highly elusive relative of the giraffe thought to be found only in the forests of the Congo. Until recently more than ten years of war and instability made it too dangerous for visitors to experience first hand the okapi’s natural environment and the intensity of the Ituri’s lush Central African climate.

But with recent elections and the gradual stabilization of the country there’s once again the opportunity to explore the okapi’s magnificent forest habitat and learn just what makes it so unique. Jean Joseph Mapulanga is the chief warden for the okapi wildlife reserve, a protected area of 18,000 square kilometers in Ituri forest.

MAPALANGA: The okapi it is very rare species. The okapi is a symbol of the country. You see the money, the Congolese Franc, you see the symbol of the okapi. And the other aspect, the okapi is a symbol of traditional leader. And that’s why people say, “no, we have to protect this symbol.”

RUFF: It’s a very quiet animal and it’s very fascinating. Because as more as you watch them and as more as you think you get to know an okapi you’re never at the end of discovering new behavior.

COOK: Rosemary Ruff runs Gilman International Conservations okapi conservation project at the Epulu breeding and research station in Ituri forest, which for the last 19 years has taken the lead in protecting the okapi.

RUFF: It’s quite an exceptional animal. Many people don’t know the okapi, they never heard the name. They don’t even know how it looks like. So it has some kind of mystery around it.

COOK: From a distance the okapi’s rear resembles that of a zebra with black and white stripes on its hind legs. The almost elastic suppleness of its neck reminds one of a giraffe. While its silent and graceful movement recalls the limber poise of the antelope. Only scientifically recognized in 1902 the okapi has proven remarkably successful at maintaining its reputation for elusiveness. Sightings in the wild tend to be few and far between as I discovered.

The okapi. (Photo: David Eppstein)

Well, I’m with Desiree Kapamba, one of our pigmy guides. Desiree has just been showing me a succession of what looks like extremely fresh hoof prints of the okapi.


COOK: Desiree has just said that the tracks are today’s tracks. He’s just pointed out one of the plants, the musala plant, which is the name in the Mbuti Pygmy language and also another plant, which is called kiki, and both of these plants are eaten by the okapi. The plant has been almost totally stripped bare of leaves and on the few that remain there are clear bite marks. And what Desiree thinks is that perhaps the okapi was here this morning, may even have heard us and then made its escape.


COOK: We’ve been walking now for around two hours and Mtaka, the tracker, and Phillipo, one of the pygmies have just discovered two quite large piles of okapi droppings. These are fresh, from this morning. That at least proves that the okapi was within very close proximity to us. When it heard our approach they took off into the forest.

At the Epulu Station in the reserve 15 okapis are kept in captivity in their natural environment, free to roam around their spacious enclosures in the forest. The okapi at the station receive much of their food thanks to the Mbuti Pygmies. Everyday in the early morning, half light, they go out into the forest and forage for some of the 33 different varieties of leaf which the otherwise free ranging okapi normally eats in the wild.


COOK: Mbuti Pygmies from Ituri forest describe the okapi’s very special significance for Mbuti culture. This collective and cultural attachment to the okapi borders on almost spiritual reverence. Kowla Nuango is director of the international NGO the Wildlife Conservation Society or WCS at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

NUANGO: Pygmies are the first habitants of this area and for them seeing the beautiful okapi, they call it in their local language yarabi. That means my recall of God. That means traditionally pygmies do not hunt okapi and do not eat okapi too, even the meat because they believe they are God. It’s God with them.

The Okapi is a member of the giraffe family. It's seen here at the St. Louis Zoo. (Courtesy of the State of Missouri/ Belinda Lewis)

COOK: Well, we’re now coming up to the enclosure of tattoo. And tattoo was born on the fourth of September 1995. And she’s just coming towards us right now.

RUFF: She’s very curious. Maybe we can go a little bit further inside. It takes a while before she makes her decision to approach us.

COOK: Well, we’re waiting maybe 15 meters away from her. She seems to be looking very intently right now. Her ears are drawn back. They are so large one really can imagine how acute their hearing is.

RUFF: Tattoo. Come on girl. Now she is slowly moving up to us. Good girl. Good girl.

COOK: Well, I’m just about to touch her right now.

RUFF: Yeah, it’s not a problem.

COOK: Just touching her there’s this definite grease on her hide. It’s very very fine hair as well. Dark brown. It’s like velvet: lustrous, shiny. One of the things that really strikes me, perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing, but there is a personality to each of these individual okapi isn’t there?

RUFF: Absolutely yes. All of our 15 okapis none of them has the same character.

COOK: Despite the years of strife and lawlessness the okapi survives in its isolated splendor in the forests of Ituri. Both the Mbuti Pygmies as well as local and international conservationists deserve much credit for their determined protection of the okapi. Yet severe threats remain. Rosemary Ruff.

RUFF: I think for conservation people it looks like a huge mountain ahead of us in order to save it, if you want to secure the okapi habitat you need to secure the tropical rainforest in Ituri. It’s going to be quite the challenge I think. From our side we can help a lot in refusing to purchase tropical wood, timber. And I think it needs to be aware in our culture that if we buy some tropical timber we do actually help to destroy the okapi habitat. I hope people realize that.

[SINGING IN LOCAL LANGUAGE: Mbuti pygmy women singing in Ituri Forest Village, Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa (Recorded live by Rupert Cooke for Deutsche Welle Radio)]

COOK: Rupert Cook, Ituri forest, Northeastern Congo.

GELLERMAN: Our story on the okapi comes to us courtesy of Radio Deutsche Welle.



UNESCO: Okapi Wildlife Reserve

Wildlife Conservation Network: Okapi Conservation Project

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Okapi


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