The okapi and its home are not well studied, due to the difficult terrain, poor infrastructure and civil unrest in the DR Congo, and limited study opportunities for students. The Okapi Conservation Project has instituted specific research projects over the years to evaluate okapi behavior, nutrition, health, reproduction, abundance and genetics. Trained staff members both from the OCP and from White Oak Conservation Center participate in the design and implementation of the projects, ultimately seeking solutions and practical applications to conserve the okapi, wildlife and forest of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
In experimental efforts to provide alternatives to bushmeat in the region, the project has supported the construction and implementation of cane rat production sites in Mambasa and Epulu. The farmers produce animals, both to initiate other breeding centers in the region, and for sale and consumption. The intent of the program is to engage farmers in the region to help mass produce this species as game meat and alternatives to bushmeat, and provide sustainable, economic and eco-friendly animal protein. Okapi Conservation Project staff have conducted research regarding the husbandry and management involved with the cane rat program.
OCP personnel are monitoring the primates found around the Epulu headquarters to identify the primate species and their frequency in the area, to understand their group composition and interactions and the associations with other primate species, and observe species feeding preferences. It is hoped this information will provide insight to understand how primate populations utilize recovering secondary forest and wildlife corridors, and help protect the forests immediately surrounding the Epulu station headquarters.
The okapi male Kurudi, released from the breeding project in Epulu in 2004, has been monitored for his adaptation and return to the forest. The team discovered that this animal established a territory close to the Lelo River north of the Epulu headquarters. Despite the occasional disturbance due to human activities in that area, the animal appeared to be thriving for a number of years and the research was discontinued. Given the success of this initial release, Project staff are considering additional releases in the coming years of wild caught okapi who have successfully contributed to the breeding program.
The OCP is working with Dr. Mike Bruford of Cardiff University, Wales, UK, who has developed microsatellite genetic markers that will enable his genetics lab to analyze DNA samples from okapi populations. A plan is in place to analyze DNA from fecal samples of okapi living in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve which have been collected during overall wildlife surveys and during ranger patrols conducted in 2011. White Oak Conservation Center received a grant to support the collection and analysis of the samples and PhD student Dave Stanton will perform the analysis in the UK lab. Once the Okapi Wildlife Reserve analysis project is underway we hope to expand the project to analyze okapi populations in other forests of the DR Congo. The publication below outlines the work of the Okapi Conservation Project and Cardiff University to identify the okapi microsatellites for use in population evaluation:
Conservation Genetics Resource
Microsatellite loci of the okapi (Okapia johnstoni)
David W.G. Stanton, Linda Penfold, Xiangjian Zhan, Michael W. Bruford