The okapi, the discreet treasure of the DRC

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is the only country in the world to be home to the okapi. The animal, half giraffe half zebra, rare and shy, is an endangered species threatened by illegal human activities.

The Congolese have surely seen more okapis on their banknotes than in the forest. The animal is so rare and so discreet that those who have come across it in the tropical forests of Ituri, in the northeast of the country, where the species is endemic, are privileged. I’m lucky, recognizes Berce N’Safuansa, who manages the okapi project of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Global within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, created in 1992 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site five years later. It’s fantastic, you can’t imagine the enthusiasm we have to be in front of an okapi! »

And for good reason ! With its head of a giraffe (it is, with the giraffe, one of the only two living species of the giraffidae family), its body of an antelope, the front legs and the hindquarters striped black and white like a zebra, and its phenomenal lick (40 centimeters long), the okapi is an animal full of mysteries, almost mythical, sometimes nicknamed the African unicorn.

Unique, rare and irreplaceable

Unique to Congo-Kinshasa, mondonga (okapi in Lingala) was only discovered by a European explorer at the very end of the 19th century. In 1901, he was scientifically named Okapia johnstoni. It is one of the last three mammals recorded in the world. But for a long time, the okapi was known to the local populations. “ Here, for example, we have the local community of the Mbuti, the pygmies: for them, the okapi represents a friend of their ancestors. It is therefore an animal that must be protected, that must not be killed for its meat or for any need. “, explains Berce N’Safuansa.

The okapi holds a special place among the rich fauna found in Congo-Kinshasa. “ It is an animal of capital importance, continued Berce N’Safuansa, because of the exceptional and universal value it represents: a unique, rare, irreplaceable species, which lives in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. »

Poachers and militiamen

So rare that the species is threatened: endangered, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).“ In the near future, predicts Berce N’Safuansa, this species will end up in probably the highest category, risk of extinction, with declining numbers. »

The main predators of the okapi? Leopards and humans. The natural habitat of ruminants is threatened every day by illegal human activities. Berce N’Safuansa points out “ armed poaching, in search of okapi skin, meat, fat, bones, so sought after today on the black market. To this must be added the loss of natural habitats as well as the presence of militia groups and illegal miners in and around the reserve. »

The armed militias that rage in the region spare no one, neither the okapi nor the humans. There are no recent and scientific censuses of the okapi population, given the difficulties of the terrain and the great discretion of this solitary animal. It is only estimated that there are only several thousand okapi left in their natural state.


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