Conservation Location of the Week – Okapi Conservation Reserve, DRC

First off, sorry I haven’t been posting in a while – I’ve been caught up in a lot of work and have been really busy, but either way, here’s the next post…

The inspiration behind this post came a few weeks ago when I was researching on mammal viewing potential in different parks in rainforest Africa. It begged the question, what are the most significant conservation reserves (in terms of both biodiversity and species populations) in the African tropical rainforests. Well, soon I came up with a shortlist – the Tai/Sapo NP complex in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, the Cross River/Korup Complex in Nigeria and Cameroon, the tri-national rainforest park complex in Congo (Odzala), Gabon (Minkebe), and Cameroon (Lobeke/Dja), the Dzanga-Sangha-Dzanga-Ndoki NP and Nouabale-Ndoki NP in CAR and Congo, and lastly, perhaps the two greatest of them all – the Salonga NP complex and Okapi Conservation Reserve (Ituri Forest) in the DRC.

In this post, I will focus on the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the Ituri Forest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wild northeastern province, Orientale. The Ituri Forest is a very special place; not only is it probably the most diverse forest block in all of Africa for mammals, but it also sustains globally important populations of many of those species. A large percentage of the global populations of many reasonably widespread species, such as the Black-footed Mongoose, African Linsang, White-bellied Duiker, Weyn’s Duiker, Black Fronted Duiker, Bay Duiker, Yellow Backed Duiker, Eastern Chimpanzee, Bates’ Pygmy Antelope, African Golden Cat, Water Chevrotain, Giant Ground Pangolin, Forest Elephant, Bongo, Forest Sitatunga, Giant Forest Hog, and many more occur in the Ituri Forest. Of course, there are also the endemics, and many of these, I believe, are some of the most special animals in Africa.  The Okapi Reserve’s true biodiversity goes far beyond its namesake, that gorgeous, elusive, forest dwelling relative of the giraffe. For example, there is the Owl Faced Guenon (an elusive forest monkey with a lovely facial pattern), the Eastern Needle Clawed Galago (a type of bushbaby), the Central African Red Colobus (a large, red capped, monkey), Alexander’s Cusimanse (a social relative of the mongoose), and Giant Genet (the largest member of the genet family – a beautifully patterned relative of the civet). Perhaps one of the most interesting inhabitants of these forests is the queer Aquatic Genet, in interesting, and strangly ill-adapted creature which seems to enjoy feasting on fish, but has an extreme intolerance for entering the water. Of course, perhaps the forest’s most irreplaceable inhabitant is the Okapi. When European explorers first set foot in these mysterious forests, right in the storied “Dark Heart of Africa,” they met native pygmies, who told of a mysterious forest beast, revered for its beauty and elusiveness. In fact, the animals were so difficult to see that the foreigners thought of them as some sort of forest unicorn! Of course, now we know that to be untrue, for the okapi is a beautiful black-and-white striped member of the giraffe family. Unfortunately, the Okapi also happens to be a very difficult animal to see, not just because of its elusive habits, but also because its habitat is in danger – from internal conflicts, armed gangs, and poaching.

Sadly, the Okapi Conservation Reserve is in peril. Civil War rages in the towns surrounding the forests and many bandits have used the remote wilderness as a hiding place, where they could silently poach animals unnoticed. Just last year in August 2012, 14 Okapi were slaughtered and the whole Okapi Conservation Reserve headquarters in Epulu burned down, when Mai-mai Rebels raided the village. Few have returned since. In fact, the Ituri district has become so dangerous that most countries’ consulates advise against all travel to the region. We can only hope that sometime in the near future, it may become safe once again, and the wildlife may continue to flourish. Meanwhile though, wildlife populations both in and near the reserve have been dealt serious blows. Populations of large animals, such as Bongo, Forest Elephant, Sitatunga, Red River and Giant Forest Hogs, African Golden Cats, Giant Pangolins, Chimpanzees, Okapis (almost 50% decline!) have been crippled, with the most serious damage occurring to the Forest Elephants, due to ivory poaching. Further north in the province in other areas of the Okapi’s range, the news is even more unsettling. The Rubi-Tele Reserve, just north from the Okapi Faunal Reserve, previously thought to be a stronghold for similar species, has been infiltrated by illegal diamond miners, who have begun to poach huge amounts of wildlife from the park as bushmeat. Thankfully, the situation is much less dire in the Okapi Reserve and we can all hope it stays that way, because then perhaps, the wildlife may recover. Hopefully, the region will once again become safe, and tourism will return to this primeval refuge, which, all-in-all, deserves it wholeheartedly. Perhaps, with a little luck, persistence, and help, the Okapi Conservation Reserve could once-again, return to its former glory as “The Serengeti of the Rainforest.”

Advice for Visitors: The Current advice I’ll give right now is DO NOT ATTEMPT A VISIT. At the present (May 2013), very few people will be willing to guide visitors, and travel to the area will involve a large inherent amount of danger. Not even the most seasoned, careful travelers should attempt a trip to this region until the safety concerns can be addressed and the internal conflicts quelled. Hopefully once this occurs, a variety of fabulous tourism options might open up – long treks in the rainforest with guides searching for a variety of rare diurnal and nocturnal species like Genets, Forest Duikers, Mongooses, Linsangs, Monkeys, Elephants, Bongos, Pigs, and perhaps even the Okapis themselves, plus traditional cultural visits to Mbuti and Efe pygmies as well as river journeys by boat, and animal tracking or botanical walks. We can all hope.

All the best,

Venkat

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