June 8, 2006

Rare Giraffe-like Animal Found

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Delighted conservationists said on Friday that they had found conclusive proof of the existence of a rare giraffe-like creature in Congo's Virunga National Park that has defied the odds of survival in a region battered by savage conflict.

First discovered in what is now Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 1901, the shy forest-dwelling okapi had not been found in the park since 1959.

It was known to be present elsewhere in the Congo, but there were concerns it had gone extinct in the place of its discovery because of violence and lawlessness.

But a recent survey of the area by conservation group WWF and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) found 17 okapi tracks and other evidence of its presence.

No sightings of the elusive animal, which resembles a cross between a giraffe and a zebra with a striped behind and legs and a long neck, were made but its tracks were taken as absolute proof of the creature's recent activity in the park.

It is only found in the secluded forests of eastern Congo and is considered the giraffe's closest living relative.

"The rediscovery of okapis in Virunga National Park is a positive sign," said Marc Languy, of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Program.

"As the country is returning to peace, it shows that the protected areas in this troubled region are now havens for rare wildlife once more," he said.

The animal's eastern Congo home has been the scene of incessant conflict including a brutal civil war that erupted in 1998 and then escalated to engulf several other African states at a cost of millions of lives.

The Congo hopes to put the bloodshed and chaos behind when it holds its first free elections in four decades next month, but marauding rebels and militia continue to fight on in the remote east.

"Except for mountain gorillas, which have shown an increase in population due to important conservation efforts, most wildlife in the park (Virunga) have heavily suffered from poaching," said WWF.

"The population of hippopotamus, for example, has dropped from 29,000 in the mid-1970s to less than 1,000 today," it said.