In the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the heart of the Congolese rainforest, sits the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The reserve is more than one-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park and it harbors the single largest remaining population of okapis anywhere.
An okapi is a shy, solitary forest animal related to a giraffe. In reality, it looks more like the product of a vivid imagination — the hindquarters of a zebra stitched together with the head of a giraffe and the body of a horse. Considering the okapi’s size, it’s incredible that the species went scientifically undescribed until only about 100 years ago when 19th century explorers heard rumors of a ‘striped donkey.’ Today, it’s found only in these forests of northeastern DRC. It remains a symbol of national pride for the country, found on the bank notes of the local currency, on the badges of park ranger uniforms and proudly stamped over my six-month Congo entry visa.
Okapis share this reserve with many other species — forest elephants, chimpanzees, the highest diversity of monkeys found anywhere in Africa. This is also the home of the Efe and Mbuti, one of the oldest forest peoples on the continent, and the Mbuti still practice their traditional hunter gatherer culture in and around the reserve.
All is not well in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, though. Its wildlife now suffers from persistent poaching and trafficking for food and ivory. Its natural resources and vast forests face increasing pressure from the illegal exploitation of minerals. This activity thrives on the weak governance and rule of law that exists across many of DRC’s remote border areas.
In this, the reserve is not alone. DRC as a whole has astonishing biodiversity and rich natural and cultural heritages. As a nation, it boasts the highest animal biodiversity of any country in Africa, with many of its charismatic species — okapis, bonobos, Grauer’s gorillas — found nowhere else on Earth. Unfortunately, many of these high biodiversity areas are also centers of conflict and insecurity today. As a result, much of the country’s network of protected areas and World Heritage sites is in danger.
That narrative could be starting to shift, though. Just recently, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the DRC Government’s Nature Conservation Agency (ICCN) signed an agreement to delegate management of Okapi Wildlife Reserve to WCS.
With this agreement comes hope for a brighter future, where good stewardship of biodiversity and natural resources actively restores local governance, creates greater stability, drives local economic growth, and reduces conflict.
At the official ceremony to inaugurate the Okapi Wildlife Reserve agreement, the Director of ICCN highlighted its importance in bringing new expertise and financing to the management of the reserve and improving the welfare and operations of its rangers. Restoring the reserve — a World Heritage Site in peril — to its former world-class status will preserve the area as a haven for wildlife and a source of revenue for its local communities.
A day prior to the agreement ceremony, Tom Muller, the newly installed director of the reserve, went for an early morning jog. Along the path, he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of an adult male okapi, which stood silently watching him from less than 30 meters away. After a few seconds, the okapi slipped into the forest. It was the first time Tom had ever seen the species in the wild and he remained, awed, for a few moments before moving on.
I take this as a good sign. I am filled with hope that the reserve can one day serve as model for all of DRC’s protected areas, as a place where stability is restored and wildlife flourishes, where good governance and local development provide opportunities for communities, and where local people can live off their ancestral lands free from exploitation by outside interests. I believe that together we can make the Okapi Wildlife Reserve a symbol of pride for the Democratic Republic of Congo once again.
Emma Stokes is the WCS Regional Director for Central Africa & the Gulf of Guinea.