The striped Okapi is a rare hybrid – described as half zebra and half giraffe – found in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. Most people have never seen or heard of this mythical creature, but CNN reports that it is iconic for this small nation — like the giant panda is to China or the kangaroo is to Australia. Its image can be found on cigarette packages, stamps, water bottles, and even on the country’s paper currency. But now it is highly endangered — there are only 10,000 remaining in the wild, a 50% reduction in the last 25 years. CNN in an in-depth story explains the many pressures on the species.
- A series of dictators have seen vast misuse of the Congo’s natural resources – illegal gold and diamond mines abound.
- The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site in eastern Congo, is one of the most dangerous places to visit because of armed militias and poachers lurking there.
- And the region is now struggling further with the worst outbreak of Ebola in the country so far.
- And the recent democratically held elections there were marred by fraud.
The Okapi are the passion of an American scientist named John Lukas, who has made saving it his life’s mission, according to CNN. Lukas used technology from NASA that helped amplify the sounds made by the Okapi to prove they communicate via infrasonic noises that are “quite dinosaur-like.”
There are some signs that after a peaceful transfer of power to the former President’s “friendly opposition leader” (whose election seems to have been rigged), the rebel fighters will lay down their arms, and that will provide some respite from violence for the Okapi. Meanwhile, Lukas is hoping to expand his project to Maiko National Park to the south, “It’s a spectacular place with bongo antelope, okapis and gorillas,” he told CNN. “Nobody can go there, it needs our help. I don’t have much time left, so I’m going to spend every moment making a difference.”
Why This Matters: Okapi have been preserved for some time in zoos around the world, but the numbers of those bred in captivity are dwindling — a baby recently died in a Florida zoo. Congo could be a place with vibrant ecotourism, like its neighbor Rwanda, but it would have to get Ebola and its violence in the rural areas under control. According to CNN, a “safari” to see a mountain gorilla in Rwanda costs $1,500, and tourism accounts for 13% of the country’s GDP, which has provided Rwandans an economic incentive to support conservation. But right now Congo’s parks, like Maiko and Virunga, are too dangerous for tourism. Hopefully, the new government will be able to overcome both Ebola and civil unrest and save their valuable endangered Mountain Gorillas and Okapis.