June 8, 2006

Rare giraffe-like animal “rediscovered” in Congo park

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

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