September 11, 2008

Rare African Okapi Caught On Camera

Researchers confirmed the discovery of an African animal so secretive it was once believed to be a mythical unicorn has been caught on camera in the wild.

Rare pictures of the wild Okapi were snagged with camera traps set by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Measuring up to 8 feet in length and standing up to 6 feet at the shoulder, the okapi has striped legs that give the animal a superficial resemblance to a zebra but it is, in fact, a close relative of the much larger giraffe.

The sightings in Virunga National Park prove the species is surviving in the jungle despite years of civil conflict and threat from the bush meat trade.

"To have captured photographs of such a charismatic creature is amazing," said Dr. Noelle Kumpel, ZSL's bush meat and forests conservation program manager.

"Okapi are very shy and rare animals - which is why conventional surveys only tend to record droppings and other signs of their presence."

Okapis are the closest living relative of the giraffe"”possessing a similar black tongue designed for grasping and holding, along with distinctive stripes on their behind.

The western world had never seen the species until the early 20th Century, but they are now known to inhabit three protected areas, of which Virunga National Park is one.

Access to the forests of DRC is limited by civil conflict and poor infrastructure, making their abundance in the park unknown because survey work is difficult.

It's been nearly 50 years since the last official sighting. But a survey in 2006 by conservation group WWF found their tracks on the west bank of the Semliki River, in the park's northern sector.

Traps set by ZSL in conjunction with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) took the latest pictures.

"We have already identified three individuals, and further survey work will enable us to estimate population numbers and distribution in and around the Virunga Park, which is a critical first step in targeting conservation efforts," said Thierry Lusenge, a member of ZSL's DRC survey team.

The species is also under severe threat from poaching. Okapi meat, reportedly from the park, is now regularly on sale in the nearby town of Beni.

If hunting continues at this rate, okapi could become extinct in the park within a few years, the ZSL survey team warned.


Image 1: Okapi image from Chester Zoo's - The Secret World of the Okapi. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Image 2: This is one of the first pictures of the elusive okapi in the wild by camera trap. They were taken by ZSL's team in Watalinga forest in the north of the Virunga National Park in eastern DRC. (Zoological Society of London)

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