Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: okapi

Nominated by: Tusk Task Force

Why do you love it? 

Even though the okapi resembles the striped markings of a zebra on its behind, it is actually closely related to their tall cousins, the giraffe. Due to their common remarkable DNA, the okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family, Giraffidae. Okapis are only found in the northeast forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and their name actually means “the forest giraffe” for they rely on forests to survive. Like their cousins they have long tongues that can go from 14 to 18 inches but unlike giraffes, they are about the size of a zebra. The okapi is the symbol of the DRC and provides important biodiversity benefits to all the other species where it roams.

What are the threats to the Okapi? 

Since the okapi is only endemic in the DRC, their numbers have gone down tremendously since the discovery of their species in 1901 by humans. The okapi has been a protected national treasure of the Congo since 1933 but they are now listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Major threats include habitat loss due to deforestation and human settlement. Extensive hunting for their bushmeat and skin have also led to the decline in their populations. The most recent and dire threat on the okapi is the presence of illegal armed groups around protected areas, inhibiting conservation and monitoring by conservation groups, especially in the Virunga National Park. There are only 10,000-25,000 left of them in the wild, primarily in the Ituri Forest in the DRC.

What are you doing to save the okapi?

Tusk Task Force has recently included the okapi as one of its four target species (along with the elephant, giraffe, and the rhino) to defend because of their close relationship to the giraffe so they are partnering with the Okapi Conservation Project (OKP) to protect okapi populations. The OKP was established in 1987 which developed the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1993 to protect the species. In June 2012, a gang of militant poachers attacked the headquarters of the Reserve killing six guards and OKP staff in addition to 13 of the species.

Due to wildlife trafficking, Tusk Task Force is committed to help defend the okapi and its park rangers from further violence on a three-prong approach against wildlife terrorism:

Advocacy: 1. Build public awareness through consulting, education, public relations, and research; 2. Influence public policy channels by supporting legislation supporting okapi conservation on the international, national, state, and local levels; 3. Ally and consult with other advocates and NGOs on their targeted okapi conservation campaigns; 4. Deliver public policy advocacy resources to advocates and/or individuals at the grassroots level through our Tusk Ambassadors™ program; and, 5. Support global advocates on all levels, aligned with our mission, promoting okapi conservation.

Intelligence: 1. Provide a comprehensive repository of intelligence on the subject of wildlife terrorism including the DoW or DATA on Wildlife™ (Database of All Terrorist Activities on Wildlife) with regards to okapi population; 2. Compile, analyse, provide, and share intelligence of okapi casualties to all advocates and NGOs; 3. Promote data-driven and knowledge-based approach to help us address solutions to alleviate okapi mortality rates; 4. Authenticate with intelligence sources to confirm information regarding general and specific wildlife terrorism events on the okapi; and, 5. Corroborate each source of intelligence we acquire using “triangulation” or “five points” methodology to make sure that the source is as accurate as possible.

Protection: 1. Allocate tactical and operational resources to wildlife park rangers protecting the okapi; 2. Execute direct and in-direct force protection programs through our Tusk Defenders™ program; 3. Partner with other NGOs to help with their anti-poaching and okapi conservation efforts; 4. Ally with technology firms to enhance innovative tools to combat poaching of the okapi; and, 5. Collaborate with other NGOs to support a vibrant wildlife economy instead of a violent extinction economy that includes humanitarian aid to communities affected by wildlife terrorism.

Tusk Task Force observes the World Okapi Day on October 18 every year.

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Nov 26

The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has revealed that the okapi – the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – is creeping ever closer towards extinction.

Okapi image

The okapi is now classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Into the Red

The okapi, also known as the ‘forest giraffe’, is endemic to the rainforests of the DRC, and has been found to be in serious decline across its range as a result of poaching and habitat loss. Following the latest set of assessments for the IUCN Red List, the okapi has been moved from being classified as Near Threatened to the far more serious category of Endangered. The presence of rebels, elephant poachers and illegal miners in its habitat have also contributed to the okapi’s dwindling numbers, leaving it just one step away from the highest risk of extinction.

The okapi is revered in Congo as a national symbol – it even features on the Congolese franc banknotes,” says Dr Noëlle Kümpel, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and manager of ZSL’s range-wide okapi conservation project. “Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival.”

The latest update to the IUCN Red List brings the total number of species assessed to 71,576, of which a worrying 21,286 are threatened with extinction. Threats to the world’s species range from habitat destruction and climate change to pollution and overexploitation.

Black-browed albatross

The black-browed albatross has been moved from Endangered to Near Threatened

Bad news for birds

According to the update, almost 200 species of bird are now classified as Critically Endangered, with the latest addition being the white-winged flufftail, one of Africa’s rarest birds. This small, secretive bird has suffered as a result of habitat destruction and degradation in its native Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Wetland draining, water abstraction, overgrazing and conversion of land for agriculture have all played a part in the decline of this species, and the IUCN is calling for urgent action to better understand this species’ ecology and address these threats.

Positive stories

However, it is not all bad news, as the population numbers of some species are currently increasing. The albatross family is one of the most threatened bird families on Earth, with bycatch in fisheries being the main threat to their survival, but populations of two such species are on the increase, putting them at a lower risk of extinction. The black-browed albatross has improved in status from Endangered to Near Threatened, while the black-footed albatross has moved from Vulnerable to Near Threatened.

Island fox image

The island fox is endemic to the California Channel Islands

Conservation success

One particularly positive story is that of the island fox, a canid endemic to six of the California Channel Islands off the coast of southern California in the USA. This species was once classified as Critically Endangered following catastrophic declines in the mid-1990s as a result of disease and predation by non-native species such as the golden eagle. All four subspecies of this relative of the mainland grey fox have since increased in number or are showing signs of recovery. The island fox’s change in status to Near Threatened is a credit to the hard work of the US National Park Service, an IUCN Member, which included captive breeding, reintroduction, vaccination against canine diseases, and the relocation of golden eagles.

Leatherback turtle image

Leatherback turtle

More to be done

This IUCN Red List update shows some fantastic conservation successes, which we must learn from, for future conservation efforts,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “However, the overall message remains bleak. With each update, whilst we see some species improving in status, there is a significantly larger number of species appearing in the threatened categories. The world must urgently scale up efforts to avert this devastating trend.”

The importance of scientific knowledge and continued conservation action is highlighted in the case of the leatherback turtle. While the status of the global population of this species appears to be improving, the leatherback turtle continues to face serious threats at the subpopulation level. One of seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations, the Northwest Atlantic Ocean leatherback subpopulation is abundant and increasing thanks to successful conservation initiatives in the region. However, its counterparts from both the East Pacific Ocean and West Pacific Ocean subpopulations are suffering a severe decline as a result of extensive egg harvesting and incidental capture in fishing gear. It is feared that these threatened subpopulations may completely collapse if targeted conservation measures are not taken.

Black-footed albatross image

Populations of the black-footed albatross are on the increase

Raising awareness

Wildscreen, an IUCN Red List Partner, is working towards raising awareness of the diversity of life on Earth and highlighting the plight of its many threatened species. Through its biggest public engagement initiative, ARKive, an unparalleled collection of wildlife footage and images is being made freely available to all for conservation and education.

Educating people about the current extinction crisis is a vital aspect of the conservation movement,” says Dr Verity Pitts, ARKive Content Manager. “By connecting the world with nature, and successfully communicating the importance of biodiversity, we move one step closer to reversing – or at least halting – the decline of our most valuable resources.”

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content Officer

 

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