Stop armed militia to save rare ‘forest giraffe’, conservationists warn


Jessica Aldred, The Guardian

Date Published

Although this is about okapi it might be relevant to some of this service

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Conservationists have called for urgent action to stop armed militia and illegal mining in protected central African forests from driving the elusive okapi to extinction. 

A 10-year plan to save the “forest giraffe” drawn up by a coalition of conservation groups and NGOs calls for government and international commitments to support key protected areas from armed militia involved in ivory poaching and illegal gold-mining activities. 

Chocolate-brown with distinctive black and white markings on its hindquarters similar to a zebra, the okapi’s (Okapia johnstoni) closest living relative is actually the giraffe. Around the size of a small horse, they live in the remote central and north-eastern lowland tropical rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and were one of the last large mammals to be discovered in Africa. 

The threats to the species have increased as its habitat has decreased. In 2008, numbers of the “near-threatened” species were estimated to be between 10,000 and 35,000. However the most recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “red list” assessment of the species in November 2013 upgraded its status to endangered, after a loss of more than 50% of the population over 24 years.

Forest elephants and the eastern lowland gorilla have already disappeared from large areas of eastern DRC. Without action, the okapi could suffer the same fate. 

Dr John Hart, a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) giraffe and okapi specialist group, said: “From what we are seeing around the range, I think okapi could soon be the next big flagship species to crash in Congo, unless we act now to implement this plan.”

The strategy, published on Thursday by the IUCN and supported by partners including the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and Zoological Society of London, covers the broad actions needed to protect the okapi’s habitat. It includes restoring protected areas, creating wildlife corridors, maintaining the intactness of habitat throughout their range, supporting protected areas in terms of management, and better monitoring.

The strategy’s lead author and co-chair of the IUCN giraffe and okapi group, Dr Noëlle Kümpel, said: “The okapi is an iconic species for DRC and the wider world. There are still enormous gaps in our knowledge of these creatures, in large part because security concerns across their range have prevented survey teams getting on the ground. But what is clear is the unprecedented pressure and range of threats now facing these rare and amazing animals. 

“This global strategy provides a clear roadmap for joint action to bring them back from the brink of extinction, tackling these wider threats so we can focus on specific actions to better manage and monitor okapi.”

Key to the plan is safeguarding the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Ituri forest, a 13,700-square kilometre Unesco World Heritage area that is home to more than 3,000 okapi and large populations of forest elephants, forest buffalo, and more than 300 bird species. 

In 2012, a militia group opened fire on the reserve headquarters and killed seven people including a ranger and all 14 captive okapis at the headquarters, which were used as wildlife ambassadors for the local community. The attack, which was reportedly in response to a crackdown on poaching and illegal mining in the park, left buildings burned, equipment destroyed and local commuities devastated. 

In the security vacuum following the attacks, elephant poaching has become rife, and around 15,000 illegal gold miners flooded into the area across 30 mine sites, further heightening instability. By mid-2015, the ICCN and the Congolese army had removed around 10,000 miners and destroyed 25 camps, regaining control of 50% of the reserve. 

Okapi in the national reserve and Maiko national park – which contain the two largest populations of okapi – have full legal protection and hunting of okapi is prohibited throughout the DRC. 

 Okapi are notoriously shy and hard to see in the wild, which makes monitoring numbers difficult. Photograph: Jabruson/NPL/Corbis

But the extent to which this protection can be enforced is limited, according to the IUCN specialist group: “Fully armed rebel forces are amongst those conducting illegal activities and rangers are poorly equipped to deal with them. The small number of rangers that can be employed to cover vast areas demonstrates how inadequate resources are.” Fifty new rangers were recruited last year and are being trained for the park alongside the existing force of 70, bringing the total to 120. 

As well as armed conflict, major threats to the okapi are forest loss through logging and human settlement, and hunting for bushmeat. There is also a lack of data on the species. Records are patchy and concentrated in and around protected areas, and because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of its habitat, as well as insecurity, relatively little is known about their biology or ecology. 

The strategy also calls for international commitments to safeguard World Heritage sites from the extractive industries. The okapi is also found in the northern part of Virunga national park, another World Heritage area that is threatened by industrial-scale oil concessions. 

Norbert Mushenzi, ICCN’s deputy director of Virunga national park, said: “Due to the presence of militia groups, ICCN has been unable to patrol or carry out monitoring of the okapi in Virunga’s northern forests since 2009, when the last camera trap surveys were conducted in conjunction with ZSL. The additional pressure of oil exploitation in the region could spell disaster for the park’s already small and vulnerable okapi population.”