Wow – It’s already been three decades since we began our work in DRC (then Zaire) to protect the endangered okapi and their habitat in the Ituri Rainforest!
To celebrate, we’re sharing photos and stories of our journey over the years on our social media sites, and all posts will be shared on this page. You can help continue to ensure a safe place for okapi to live by purchasing an okapi stripe t-shirt or contributing to our mission here.
Follow the journey through our 30 years of work:
Download a PDF of all posts and photos.
JUNE 1, 1987: The day we first landed in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC (then Zaire) after a day’s worth of flights to begin negotiations with ICCN and the Zaire government to protect okapi and their habitat. We want to develop a home base in Epulu in the heart of the Ituri Forest. Despite political instability, runaway inflation and a rapidly decreasing infrastructure, we continue our quest to develop the Epulu station for the okapi, for the Mbuti Pygmies and local villagers, and for all who care about the future of rainforests.
BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT: At the start of the project, the okapi was not classified as endangered, but the persistent conflict and instability required additional action to preserve the entire ecosystem to protect okapi and the other animals and plants. We wanted to use the okapi as a flagship species to protect itself and the incredible diversity found in the rainforests of central Africa. DRC is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and the most biodiverse place in Africa (arguably, but we think so). In DRC alone, there are over 1,500 animals and plants, including okapi, leopards, forest buffaloes, crocodiles, orchids and 17 species of primates – the highest density of primate species in Africa.
Over the past 30 years, many people have helped us get to where we are today. The Mbuti Pygmies have been a fundamental part of helping us protect okapi in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve since day one. Having lived in the Ituri Forest for over 40,000 years, they rely on the forest for their everyday needs and know forest like the backs of their hands. Pygmies help our staff by locating signs of okapi in the Reserve – footprints, feces, chewed leaves and clay licks. When we had okapi at the station, they collected the leaves for the okapi food each day. Without the Mbuti Pygmies, we would not be where we are today.
One of the main priorities of we needed to do when starting the project was to support the needs of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, or ICCN, the government partner tasked with the protection and security of all protected areas in the country. Roughly 14% of DRC is designated as protected land, but they lack the means to provide effective protection for such a huge area. They risk their lives on multi-day patrols walking through the dense forest removing snares, arresting poachers and evicting illegal miners, thus allowing the wildlife a safer place to live. With our partners and supporters around the world, we provide them with the supplies and training they need to safeguard the okapi and the rainforest in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT: In addition to working with ICCN on the direct protection of okapi, a major component of any wildlife conservation organization is working with local communities. To work in one of the most impoverished nations in the world, we needed to develop programs to improve the livelihoods of the people that lived alongside critical okapi habitat. By teaching them to sustainably grow their own food, generate additional income and increase access to clean water, it lessens their need to encroach upon the rainforest for what they need, decreases their involvement in illegal activities and helps us gain their trust and educate them to protect their most important resource – the rainforest.
Prior to our arrival in 1987, the Epulu Station was a Belgian hotspot for tourism to see okapi and experience the rainforest. Tourists from all over the world would travel through the Ituri Forest to Epulu which housed okapi for people to see and for breeding. Pictured here is an old okapi pen with nine (possibly more) okapi. We’ve learned quite a deal about okapi care since those days, and when we rebuilt the okapi pens in the late 80s, we provided multiple pens to accommodate their predominantly solitary lifestyle.
JUNE 7, 1987: Thirty years ago today, we arrived in Epulu for the very first time. Traveling to Epulu was a strenuous, 5-day-long process, but it made it worthwhile when we finally arrived to begin our journey. Due to the state of the station after the buildings were abandoned during the Congo War in the 1960s, we had to rebuild everything. We started with sketching a new layout for the station, renovating the old okapi pens, fixing the road into Epulu, and meeting with local people to make plans for the future. We wanted to accomplish two main goals: to assist zoos with increasing genetic diversity of the okapi managed in their care and to also protect the wild okapi and their habitat by establishing a protected place for them to live and thrive.
Currently, we work to ensure okapi have a safe place to live in the wild, but in the early stages of the project, we needed to ensure the okapi population in human care was healthy and genetically diverse. In 1989 an okapi named Mateso was the first okapi sent to the US since our project began. Mateso traveled to San Diego Zoo serving as a critical ambassador for her species, and was extremely important in establishing a genetically diverse population within the US. Today, we focus our efforts on protecting the okapi and its habitat by working with the local communities in DRC.
Okapi are amazing animals that are difficult to see (let alone study) in their natural habitat. The ICCN rangers that risk their lives protecting them will patrol the dense forest for approximately 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) before they even get a glimpse of one in the wild. As a strategy to avoid predation from leopards, calves will remain still in a nest while the mother goes out to feed. But how do they find one another? Thanks to relatively recent research (1990s) by our friends at White Oak Conservation, Dallas Zoo, and San Diego Zoo, we now know that okapi communicate via infrasonic sound – a level below the frequency that humans can hear. Infrasound communication is used between the mother and calf to ensure the calf is safe, and to let mom know when the calf is hungry.
The second goal of our project was to provide a protected area for okapi to thrive. By 1992, we had the station running at full capacity after rebuilding from the ground up, and through a collaborative effort between the Okapi Conservation Project, Zaire government and our many partners, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was established! The Reserve is approximately 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles), and is thought to be the largest stronghold of okapi in their known range. The reserve was designated to protect the animals that call the forest home, without removing the people that resided in the area. Allowing the communities to live within the Reserve was a key component to gaining their trust. We wanted them to stay in their homes, but we would assist them to live more sustainable lives and to be better stewards of their environment in order to preserve the integrity of the forest.
After the Reserve was created in 1992, just four years later it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. This designation brings international attention and grants protection during war times under the Geneva Convention. Though it was classified as a Heritage site in 1996, almost immediately after in 1997, it was declared a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’ because of the Congo Civil War. To this day, even though the war is over, the Reserve is still listed as ‘in danger’ because of the threat of armed conflict and unstable security situation. Even under this threat, we continue to operate our programs and support the rangers who risk their lives every day to protect this important home to okapi, forest elephants and chimpanzees.
In late 1996, the country of Zaire was thrust into the first Congo civil war after an invasion led by Rwanda eventually replaced President Mobutu Sésé Seko with Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and with this change in power resulted a change in name of the country from Zaire to Democratic Republic of Congo. While some of our staff evacuated the station, most of our Congolese staff stayed to ensure that the okapi were cared for and our programs continued to operate. Without the resiliency of the staff that stayed and the Mbuti Pygmies who collected leaves from the forest each day for the okapi, our programs would have stopped and the okapi uncared for. During the war, the station was looted and destroyed by rebel groups several times. Once our evacuated staff returned home to the station, they once again had to rebuild the station and repair the okapi pens, and one year later, the station was once again running at full capacity. The resiliency of our staff to continue caring for okapi and ensuring our programs continued strengthened our trust with the community, and showed our dedication to protect the okapi and their forest home. Once the war ended in 2003, the new government placed the responsibility for operating the Reserve and station in the hands of the Okapi Conservation Project.
The illegal pet trade and bushmeat trade is an issue for many tropical nations. Since Epulu is a guard post where vehicles are checked before continuing on their journey through the Reserve, occasionally wildlife rangers would confiscate chimpanzees and other animals. Because the chimps were infants, they couldn’t be released back into the forest, so we took them into our care and raised them in groups, and when they were large enough, they were released on a large island in the Epulu River near the station. We supplemented their natural foraging with fruits and vegetables and provided medical care if necessary. The chimps lived on the island for many years, but unfortunately, after a military occupation during the civil war, they could not be located when OCP staff were permitted to return to the station. Now, through better education and awareness around the Reserve we’ve only had one chimpanzee confiscated in the past 15 years. (He was sent to a rehabilitation facility in southern DRC).
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is a group effort working to protect okapi and other species, but protecting these special creatures requires supporting the local communities to live sustainable lives by increasing their food security and providing a source of income to cover their healthcare expenses and school fees. Throughout our 30 years, we have established several programs for the local people in and around the Reserve who can join a program to earn income through agroforestry, sewing, clearing land, caring for okapi (formerly), and more. By creating these programs, we help to not only provide a steady income to the local people, but also reduce their need to be involved in illegal activities such as mining as a funding source to provide for their families.
The roads were treacherous…and still are…especially during the rainy season. There was a desperate need to find an easier way to access the station. The result? Turn old plots of agricultural land into an airstrip! In 1994 we began construction on the much-needed airstrip. No heavy machinery was available, no lawnmowers. All work was done by hand through the dedicated villagers and former poachers providing them work and an alternative source of income for their families. The few dead trees that remained were removed, the grass was cut with 6-inch blades (the entire 1,500-meter length). The process took 4 years with the first plane landing in 1998 – the Garamba plane from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. To this day, the grass on the strip is still maintained by hand with those 6-inch blades. The pictures may be boring, but they hold a huge significance for the town of Epulu, represent our investment in the community, and help our work a little bit easier protecting okapi and their habitat.
It took a few years, but after much encouragement from okapi keepers and enthusiasts around the globe, World Okapi Day was celebrated for the first time on October 18, 2016. Zoos and okapi advocates from around the world celebrated and educated the public about this beautiful, endangered and epidemic species while rocking their amazing okapi shirts (https://www.booster.com/okapiconservationproject). October 18 is a day to celebrate not only okapi, but everything that our project stands for. There are plenty of ways that you can support okapi from right at home – recycle your cell phones (they contain a mineral that is illegally mined from okapi habitat), post your best okapi photos on social media to spread the word and visit your nearest okapi today! October is a long way away, but we hope that you help celebrate with us for our 30th anniversary this June and World Okapi Day again on October 18!
As we’ve said before, community support is a critical component of any conservation organization in order to be successful, and it’s a huge part of our own mission to save okapi. Our women’s group program first began in 1993 in Epulu, and was limited to knitting sweaters for newborns and gardening. In recent years, the program has quickly expanded in the work they do and into new areas of the Reserve. We provide the sewing machines, supplies and training for the women to make clothing for their families and sell the surplus items for an additional source of income to cover healthcare costs and school fees for their children. They typically meet twice a week and it’s become a great social gathering with laughter and fun times. By joining these groups, the women gain a stronger voice in the community and become our conservation advocates helping affect policy change and planning for the future to limit the impacts on surrounding okapi habitat and the animals in the forest.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Today we want to celebrate the person who had the vision to help initiate the Okapi Conservation Project, John Lukas. John has been a fundamental figure of influence not only on protecting okapi in DRC, but also protecting threatened and endangered wildlife around the world. For the past 30 years, John’s commitment to OCP has helped ensure the Okapi Wildlife Reserve remains a place where the communities are supported and the wildlife is protected. If you know John or have ever met him, you have seen his passion for safeguarding the natural world, and that he works each and every day to ensure it remains protected. Please join us in wishing him a happy birthday.
Okapi are truly fascinating animals, but hard to see and study in the wild. Their keen sense of hearing allows them to hear you and disappear long before you see them, making it difficult to know exactly how many are left in the wild. Though population studies have been conducted by examining fecal matter, nests, footprints and other signs, cameras traps allow us to identify each individual animal. In 2016, we deployed a few camera traps to get a preliminary census of what animals are located where to better understand what species are around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Cameras are moved to a different location every three months with the film being collected every two weeks. Camera traps are located throughout the forest and ‘snap’ an image when motion is detected. We are elated when we receive photos of okapi enjoying their natural habitat, and make an effort to share those photos with the surrounding community to educate and inspire them to protect these magnificent animals.
In early 2015, ICCN recruited 50 new guards to hire and train as rangers to patrol the forest removing snares and arresting poachers. The routine was the same, but during this recruitment, they selected 4 strong, intelligent women to become patrol rangers – the first in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Today, they are fully integrated on regular patrols in the forest. The hiring of these women as forest rangers adds stature to women in and around the Reserve, and shows other women that they have the opportunity to become rangers if they so choose.
Education is an important part of any conservation program. In the early 90s, we build the Okapi School in Epulu with the help of the Italian Catholic Ministries to educate primary school-aged children in the area during two sessions of schooling each day. After the construction of the school, we involved the children with reforesting the area with native trees to help educate them on the importance of conservation. The school is still in session today.
A major threat to okapi is the loss of prime habitat through slash-and-burn agriculture. Through our agroforestry program we started in 2001, we work with farmers to reduce slash-and-burn agriculture to protect and enhance the okapi’s rainforest habitat. By educating the farmers on the sustainable use of organic fertilizers, planting nitrogen-fixing trees on their plots of land, and providing them with the essential tools they need to grow their crops, they can utilize the same plot of land for up to ten years, thereby keeping them in the designated agricultural zones and reducing their need for expansion into the rainforest. By using sustainable fertilizers, they increase their crop yields and solidify their food security, reducing their reliance on mining, poaching and the unsustainable use of forest resources to generate income. In addition, our nurseries scattered throughout the Reserve head start tree seedlings to engage villagers in reforestation efforts.
We needed a way to educate children around the Reserve about conservation in a fun way. Thus, the Okapi ‘Qui suis-je?’ (Who am I?) comic books were born! Each book is different, and the one below shares the story of two boys who see a picture of an okapi and ask their teacher what it is. The teacher decides to use this as a teaching moment and take the whole class to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Other books in the series talk about palm oil, farming, and the biodiversity located around the Reserve. These comics were used as an education tool to teach the people around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve about the importance of protecting the area in which they live. Take a look below!
This gorgeous animal is Romakari – probably the most famous okapi in the world thanks to Joel Sartore, Photographer. He was born at our station in Epulu and now resides at White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida. Since his arrival, he has helped increase the genetic diversity of okapi in zoos by having 17 calves, 38 grandcalves, and 30 great grandcalves. He is 29 years old, and the oldest okapi in the United States. After being featured in PhotoArk, awareness of the endangered okapi quickly spread around the world.
Featured on Joel Sartore, Photographer’s Facebook page:
The okapi was discovered by western scientists in 1901. As the national animal of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it has been protected since 1933. However, due to political instability, illegal mining, deforestation and poaching, the okapi was declared endangered in 2013. Not a hybrid of two species but a species all its own, the okapi is a type of forest giraffe, or giraffid.
This okapi, named Romakari was born at the Okapi Conservation Project breeding and research center in Epulu, DRC, and has played a crucial role in maintaining genetic diversity of okapi in the U.S. after being brought to the White Oak ConservationCenter in 1991.
The Okapi Conservation Project is an organization dedicated to the protection of okapi and their natural habitat in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’ve been working to protect this species in the wild since 1987, and are celebrating their 30th anniversary this month. Follow them to see the work they’re doing to protect okapi.
Healthcare is one of the top concerns (and needs) for the residents in Okapi Wildlife Reserve, but the DRC government is unable to provide the much-needed care and facilities for their people. To address this issue, we rebuilt the Epulu medical care building into a more modern facility. This main facility provides the OCP staff, ICCN guards, WCS staff, and their families access to even the most basic healthcare needs. The facility is run by solar panels, has a surgery room and a shower area, and is run by 5 nurses and a doctor. The Mbuti Pygmy tribe also receives medical care in their own private rooms, which they requested to mimic their huts in the forest. Today, there are over 20 rural clinics throughout the reserve that treat and care for the local people.
In 2003, we lost the lives of 3 key staff members in a tragic car accident in Uganda while they were returning from negotiating with a rebel group that was in control of Epulu at that time. Karl Ruf and Jean Nlamba cofounded the project with John Lukas in 1987 and Kambali Sambili was a rising conservation biologist. To honor their sacrifice, we carried on as best we could and intensified our efforts to save the home of wild okapi. It took time to recover, but we found talented and dedicated people to manage our programs and ensure our presence across the landscape.
Mining continues to be a serious threat to wildlife in the Ituri Forest. Recently, ICCN rangers closed the Bapela mine using rather interesting techniques. After repeated closings, the miners continued to return to the same area. But by understanding and enacting local beliefs and customs, we brought in customary chiefs and shamans to put a curse on the area of the mine. The miners, fearing the effects of the curse, vacated the area and the local population proceeded to fill in all the holes made by the miners to allow the forest to regenerate.
The closure of the Bapela mine without violence was successful because it was done in the presence of all people who are involved in the protection of the forest and used traditional beliefs in the spirits of ancestors to protect the rainforest from exploitation and poaching. Success all around!
“The Man Behind the Okapi Conservation Project”
By John Lukas
The Okapi Conservation Project owes its existence to one man, Howard Gilman, New York paper magnate and philanthropist. I met Howard Gilman when I was leading a safari in 1979 for the New York Zoological Society and we shared a small tent crossing Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We become friends drawn together by our love of African wildlife and landscapes. A few years later I went to work for Howard to develop a conservation center on his family land holdings in North Florida. Together we developed state of the art breeding and research facilities for endangered species staffed by a talented and dedicated team of biologists. When I expressed my desire to work in Zaire to help the government conserve and promote their national animal, and my favorite animal, the okapi, he understood how important it was for us to do something to help. Howard said many times that people who take from nature (in his case, trees to make paper) must give back to nature. In 1987 with support from Gilman Paper Company we initiated the Okapi Conservation Project and until his death in 1998 Howard was the most ardent supporter of our work to support the wildlife rangers that protect okapi and our efforts to help communities live sustainably with wildlife. Howard Gilman generously supported dancers, artists, museums, colleges and hospitals during his lifetime but his support of okapi conservation has saved a special place, a special animal and a special people, the Mbuti pygmies that share their homeland with okapi. Howard Gilman made an extraordinary difference in my life and he showed me that really caring and giving your time, your energy and monetary support can really change the world.
We’d like to thank everyone for following our journey through our history over the past 30 days!
We’ve been resilient through long civil wars, horrific rebel attacks and loss of our dedicated staff members, but it’s the support and encouragement from our global community of supporters, donors and partners that keep us marching forward.
YOU are the ones that allow us to support the ICCN rangers who risk their lives each day protecting the forest home of okapi, forest elephants and chimpanzees, and YOU
are the ones that help to ensure the local people are able to send their children to school and afford basic healthcare for when they are sick. All of this ultimately safeguards the okapi and its forest habitat for future generations to enjoy.
Please join us on our journey over the next 30 years by contributing to our programs and asking your family and friends to do the same. Help us save okapi today!