Okapis – in danger of extinction

Zoo Berlin is one of the very few zoos in Europe that keeps exotic Okapis . The close relatives of the giraffe, with the chestnut to blackish brown fur colour and zebra-like striped upper thighs, are endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo – that is, they don't live anywhere else in the world in the wild. Their population was recently estimated to be only between 35,000 to 50,000 individuals – on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which makes the okapi therefore classified as critically endangered.

The reasons for the dramatic decline in the Okapi population are diverse: armed conflicts in areas of the planet torn apart by civil war, illegal logging and mining to extract gold and coltan, which enormously reduces the habitat as well as unending illegal hunting due the high demand for poached meat.

Zoo Berlin contributes to the Okapi Conservation Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The working site of theOkapi Conservation Project, financially supported by Zoo Berlin, is located in the middle of the Okapi habitat. The conservation project, which was established in 1987, is committed to the conservation of the okapi as well as the ecosystem with its great biodiversity in the Ituri forest, a 175,000 km2 area in northeastern DRC. Approx 5,000 okapis live in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve on 13,700 km2 of this lowland rainforest, which was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. A research and conservation station has also been set up here, with the aim of protecting the okapis and their habitat, while the biological and cultural diversity of the Ituri forest should be preserved.

Improving nature conservation hand in hand with the local population

The inhabitants of the surrounding villages are involved with as many of the nature conservation measures as possible, in which they are taught and trained in the areas of, for example, ranger work – this creates new perspectives. Sanitary facilities such as schools, hospitals and fresh water supply systems were constructed with the locals learning the modern methods of agriculture that bring higher yields and are kinder to the environment. Alternative protein sources are proposed in the form of cane rat breeding to reduce the demand for poached meat ('bushmeat').

Back to basics – reconstruction of the conservation station after rebel attack

Rebel groups have unfortunately been rampaging through the region for many years now, the activities of which are funded through poaching. June 2012 saw an act of vengeance being taken by Mai Mai rebels on the okapi conservation station as well as the village of Epulu. Six people and all fourteen okapis were killed in the attack. The whole camp was destroyed, equipment and medicines were stolen and several people from the village were kidnapped, returning in part only after the passing of several months.

Despite this deep hit, the project and the local people decided to reconstruct the station to once again push for the conservation of the okapis. Zoo Berlin actively supports this project with financial contributions.

Dear Okapi Conservation Project supporters,

On July 14, 2017, an unidentified group of armed men attacked a group of rangers and journalists in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) in Bapela, a three-hour walk through the forest outside of the town of Bandisende, just east of our station in Epulu.

Because of the relative calm in the area and regular presence of Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) rangers, ICCN Kinshasa authorized a visit by three independent journalists, including two Dutch reporters and an American reporter accompanied by a Congolese interpreter. The reason for their visit was to produce a documentary on the threats facing the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and to demonstrate the efforts by ICCN rangers who risk their lives every day protecting the forest.

The Bapela mine was regularly occupied for several years by illegal gold miners, but in late March 2017, the miners were removed from the area by ICCN rangers. A section of rangers was posted at the mine to prevent reoccupation of the area, and a regular rotation of rangers was set in place.

On July 13, during the regularly scheduled rotation to relieve the ICCN rangers posted at the mine, a team of nine ICCN rangers, accompanied by the three journalists and the interpreter traveled to the area to collect information for the documentary. They arrived at the location as planned and spent the night.

On July 14 around 3:30 p.m., the camp was attacked by unknown assailants.

Late that evening, the first group of eight people who had managed to escape, including five ICCN rangers, the two Dutch journalists and the injured paddler of the canoe that saved them, arrived at the headquarters in Epulu. The rest of the ranger team and the American journalist were unaccounted for.

A team of ICCN rangers and Congolese military was dispatched on a search-and-rescue mission to find the remaining rangers and the American journalist. Upon arrival at the scene of the attack, there were no signs of the attackers which had taken all money, identification, weapons and equipment, leaving only tents and food. The team of ICCN rangers and Congolese military found the American journalist hiding in a hole previously dug by the gold miners.

In the early hours of July 16, the ICCN rangers in the OWR deployed another team to Bapela to recover the bodies of the five individuals who were killed at the site. That afternoon, the last of the surviving rangers was accounted for in Bandisende. The Congolese army is still searching for a Congolese porter who is still unaccounted for after the attack.

An investigation is underway to determine the identity of the attackers and the reason for the attack. Virunga National Park graciously sent additional reinforcements and scent dogs to assist with the search for the attackers, and sent a plane to safely evacuate the journalists to Virunga National Park headquarters where they were treated for minor injuries.

We are devastated by the loss of five individuals - four dedicated ICCN rangers, Antopo Selemani, Gukiya Ngbekusa, Kisembo N'singa, and Sudi Koko, who worked tirelessly to protect the forest, and one porter, Lokana Tingiti. We are thankful that none of our project staff were involved or hurt during the attack. Right now, we are focused on the families of those killed, and concentrating on the needs of the local community who need to know we are there for them.

Okapi Conservation Project is covering the costs of the mission to retrieve the fallen rangers from the forest and covering all funeral costs to relieve the financial burden on their families during this devastating time. Any support from our global community of supporters is welcomed and appreciated to help cover the costs of helping the affected families and honoring the dedicated rangers who gave their lives protecting the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

ICCN rangers risk their lives every day protecting the integrity of the forest and the animals that live within it. They continue to work in these hostile conditions, and they need to know that we will continue to be there for them every day. The strongest message we can send to the unidentified attackers is to steadfastly remain committed to supporting the ICCN rangers' efforts to protect okapi and the forest, and supporting the communities that are impacted by these senseless acts of violence.

Okapi Conservation Project staff