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New hope for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve – a wildlife haven under threat in in the heart of the Congo rainforest

Conservation is bringing new hope for the security and stability of a remote forest outpost in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with the signing of a new partnership agreement to manage the Okapi Wildlife Reserve between Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Government’s Nature Conservation Agency, ICCN.

The official ceremony that delegated management of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve to the WCS was held at the Reserve’s headquarters in Epulu. It was attended by more than 300 Reserve staff, the Director General of ICCN, the provincial Minister of Environment, traditional community chiefs, local authorities, and long-term partners of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Wildlife Conservation Global. In his opening speech, the Director of ICCN highlighted the importance of this agreement in bringing new expertise and financing to the management of the Reserve, improving the welfare and operations of its rangers, and in restoring the Reserve – a World Heritage Site in Peril – to its former world class status as a haven for wildlife and a source of revenue for its local communities. 

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, more than one and half times the size of Yellowstone National Park, lies deep in the heart of the Congo rainforest. It harbours the single largest remaining population of okapi, a shy and solitary forest animal that is related to the giraffe, but in reality looks more like the product of a vivid imagination that has stitched together the hindquarters of a zebra with the head of a giraffe and the body of a horse. Astonishingly for its size, the okapi remained scientifically undescribed until about 100 years ago, when 19th century explorers in the region heard rumours of the existence of a ‘striped donkey’. Today, okapi live only in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their stronghold lies firmly within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. They share these forests with an astonishing diversity of wildlife, including one of the largest remaining populations of forest elephants in DRC, the single largest stronghold of chimpanzees in the region, and the highest diversity of monkeys found anywhere in Africa. 

The Reserve is also home to one of the oldest forest peoples on the continent – the Efe and Mbuti. The Mbuti still practice their traditional hunter gatherer culture in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. But in recent years, life has become hard for the Mbuti and okapi alike.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to conflict and insecurity. But perhaps less well known is its astonishing biodiversity and rich natural and cultural heritage. The DR Congo has the highest animal biodiversity of any country in Africa, with many of its charismatic species – okapi, bonobos, Grauer’s gorilla – found nowhere else on earth. Many of these high biodiversity areas are located in precisely those areas of conflict and insecurity. This conflict thrives on weak governance and rule of law that exists across many of these remote border areas. It prospers from the illegal exploitation of rich natural resources above the ground in the form of timber and charcoal and wildlife, and below the ground in the form of minerals, such as tin, coltan and gold.

But there is a new narrative emerging in DR Congo – and more broadly in Central Africa – one where good stewardship of biodiversity and natural resources can actively restore local governance and stability, drive local economic growth and reduce conflict, rather than be victim to it.

Central to this narrative is DRC’s network of protected areas and internationally recognized World Heritage Sites. All of them in danger. All of them with the potential to serve as beacons of stability in an otherwise lawless landscape. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is no exception to this rule; once a model protected area, its wildlife populations have been hit heavily by persistent poaching and trafficking for food and ivory, and its natural resources and vast forests under increasing pressure from illegal exploitation of minerals. There is a vision for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve – one where stability is restored, wildlife flourishes and the Reserve serves as a pole of good governance and an engine of local development for its local communities, who can live off their ancestral lands, free from exploitation by outside interests. One where the okapi – the national animal for the Democratic Republic of Congo – is once again a symbol of pride for the country. Welcoming in the new management agreement the WCS DRC Director Mr Richard Tshombe declared: “Until this nation has loved okapi, a part of its soul remains unawakened”. The new management agreement heralds a new dawn for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, and the chance for WCS, together with our partners, to help realize this vision.

The day before the ceremony, the newly installed Director of the Reserve went for an early morning forest jog. He was stopped in his tracks by the sight of an adult male okapi, silently watching him from less than 30m away. After a few seconds the okapi silently slipped away into the forest. It was the first time he had ever seen an okapi in the wild. It was a good sign.

Header image: Wild Okapi caught on a camera trap in the Okapi Wildife Reserve. Credit: Copyright Okapi Conservation Project.

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