The okapi, found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rainforest, has been reclassified as endangered by the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Concerns about the okapi mean it has moved up two stages in the newly released IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Following a reassessment led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Congolese nature conservation agency (ICCN), the okapi moves up from its original Red List classification of ‘near threatened’. Its shy nature, combined with the challenges of working in the remote and dangerous forests it inhabits, means there has been a lack of accurate and up to date information about where exactly it is found, how many individuals are left, and how badly it is threatened.
Nevertheless, through ZSL’s longstanding work in Virunga National Park and consultation with partners across DRC, it is clear the okapi faces tremendous threats to its survival. As a result, in 2010, ZSL launched a major collaborative project to assess the status of the species across its range and develop the first ever okapi conservation strategy.
This highlighted the okapi is faring worse than scientists previously thought, being threatened by poaching and habitat loss, exacerbated by the presence of dangerous groups of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners.
Noëlle Kümpel, manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project and co-chairman of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, said: “The okapi is evolutionary unique and highly distinctive, with a long, prehensile, bluish tongue and zebra-like stripes on its behind.
“It is revered in Congo as a national symbol, even featuring on Congolese franc bank notes but sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades. As a result, there has been widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin.”
David Mallon, Red List coordinator for the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and facilitator of the workshop, added: “This was the first ever comprehensive review of the okapi’s status, with some participants travelling overland for three days to attend the workshop, held in central DRC on the banks of the river Congo.”