World Okapi Day is centered around celebrating the enigmatic okapi and using it as a flagship species to protect the entire forest ecosystem in which it lives. Protecting the rainforest not only allows a thriving population of okapi, forest elephants and chimpanzees to live, but it also allows a unique indigenous culture to continue living in the forest. Fun, exciting activities were arranged around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and were combined with educational messaging targeting key demographics including children, women, Mbuti Pygmies and the larger communities in and around the Reserve. We use these celebrations as an opportunity to share our successful programs in agroforestry, women’s groups and more to recruit participants and teach them how to become better stewards of their surrounding environment while at the same time, improving their standard of living.
Building off of the success of the past three years, we wanted to expand the celebrations to a total of six villages in towns in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve that our staff identified as critical areas to reach with our messaging and programs. Each village or town was sponsored by a Zoo (Epulu – Zoo Antwerpen; Mambasa – Cheyenne Mountain Zoo; Mungbere – Tanganyika Wildlife Park; Niania – St. Louis Zoo; Wamba – Roosevelt Park Zoo; and Watsa – Dallas Zoo).
The children’s races continued as they have since the inception of the event in 2016, in addition to soccer games for women’s groups. This year, we wanted to highlight the importance of incorporating Mbuti Pygmy culture in the protection of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve by involving their traditional dances in the celebrations in each area.
The day began with a community parade in each village that was aimed to increase awareness and attendance to the races and activities that followed. The parade included members of women’s groups, pygmies, school children, and taxi drivers. Influential politicians and community leaders.
The Mbuti Pygmies performed their traditional dance while messages of protecting the forest were shared, and immediately following the children’s races were completed, the top three winners received the school fees paid for and additional school supplies. By keeping children in school, they are kept away from illegal activities and they are exposed to the conservation education curriculum we developed for the local schoolteachers.
The primary difficulty for World Okapi Day was poor infrastructure to travel to the surrounding villages. Poor road conditions caused motorbikes to break down and flooding made some roads nearly inaccessible and rainy weather caused some the events to be cut shorter than expected. Road conditions proved very difficult, with OCP staff having to travel via makeshift barges to cross the inundated roads to access some villages.
However, the intrepid staff were able to overcome all difficulties and thanks to the World Okapi Day events, an estimated number of 18,000 children and adults participated in the activities and were exposed to the message of environmental stewardship across the six towns and villages. As we grow the events year after year, we welcome additional sponsorships to expand into new villages and increase participation in current areas.