Okapi. Say whaaaaat?
The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) was instrumental in helping to establish the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in order to help compliment their efforts to protect the country’s endemic okapi species.
The Reserve’s formation honors an animal that the Congolese consider incredibly special. “The people recognize the okapi as their conservation symbol,” says Steve Shurter, Director of Conservation at White Oak Conservation Center. Steve joined the OCP team in 1987 with the task of having to bring wild okapi to Epulu for OCP’s signature breeding program.
Over the years, the country has undergone significant change. In 1992, civil conflict came to a head and armed fighting became prevalent. The Okapi Conservation Project was severely impacted. “The battle lines were right here in Epulu,” says Steve. “There were mortars falling right near the okapi enclosures.” During this time of strife, the dedicated Congolese people continued to care for the okapi, choosing not to abandon their post.
The okapi is a peculiar-looking animal. Legs like a zebra with a long neck like a giraffe. To say the okapi is elusive is an understatement. “They’re almost impossible to find,” says Steve. In the 30 years since OCP Director, Rosmarie Ruf, has been living and managing the project in Epulu, she’s caught a glimpse of one in the wild just once.
The preservation of the okapi goes hand-in-hand with the preservation of the forest. You can’t have one without the other. “If the forest is doing well, then the okapi must be doing well,” says Steve.
Epulu Station is home to 14 captive okapis. They serve as a vital education tool for tourists (not too many of those these days), but more importantly, the local Congolese people. “Seeing the okapi is a unique experience in DRC,” says Josef Mapilanga, OWR Director. OCP is using the okapi to bring attention to the forest and the issues that plague it.